Benitez: We are stronger than last year

Liverpool’s manager Rafael Benitez feels his Liverpool squad is better equipped than last year to deal with the pressures of the busy schedule of domestic and European games. Liverpool’s long-standing record of being unable to win after a European match was only broken recently, and Rafa was commenting on the chances of it starting again this weekend. Liverpool face Manchester City away tomorrow just a few days after securing qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League. Rafa feels that the better squad will enable Liverpool to always put a good side out for games: “It was hard last season to cope with Europe and the Premier League all at once. I hope we have learned and can use the squad in a way to approach each game with a different team but just as strong.” In fact Liverpool’s results after international breaks weren’t much to write home about, but again that seems to have improved: “We are improving after Champions League games and internationals, we are better equipped now for that.”

Liverpool’s schedule for this season has been increased all the more thanks to their participation in FIFA’s Club World Cup in December. This meant the Premiership fixture against Sunderland had to be rearranged, and this game now takes place on Wednesday. Liverpool are in the middle of a run of two games a week that started with the visit of Portsmouth on November 19th and ends on December 10th with the visit of Middlesbrough. Five days later Liverpool will be in Japan for the FIFA tournament, with games on December 15th and 18th. It’s only then that they get a bit of a break – after travelling home all that way they don’t play again until Boxing Day, when they face the infamous Christmas period of four games in a week. Rafa says that he’s confident his squad will be able to cope with these busy times: “Last year, if we had three games in eight days it was difficult. Now we have something similar in this spell. We have played Real Betis and now play Manchester City and then Sunderland in eight days. Let’s see how we cope with that, and then we will know if we have improved. I feel we have.”

Rafa says that psychology is important in getting his players through the fixture pile-up: “We have to be able to change our mindset and approach different games in quick succession. If we can do this now it will give the team a lot of confidence and it will be totally different in the future.”

Rafa’s improved squad still needs improving, something he’s already admitted, and as the January transfer window draws closer so the names being bandied about start to increase. Rafa was asked about whether he was likely to be signing the likes of Valencia’s Di Vaio or Fulham’s Malbranque at today’s press conference, and also whether Harry Kewell was likely to join up with former team-mate Milan Baros and former manager David O’Leary at Villa Park. Rafa said that it was all gossip and should be ignored: “It is just newspaper talk, they like to speculate and continue to come up with lots of names.”

Early last month Rafa was denying reports that he was about to sign Real Betis winger Joaquin. The players agent had been rumoured to be at Anfield as a guest of chief scout Paco Herrera as Liverpool lost against Chelsea. Now Joaquin is claiming interest from Newcastle United in his services. Last month’s comments from Rafa were that the agent-at-Anfield stories were made up: “These stories are false. I keep reading in the Spanish press that we are trying to take Joaquin to England. The agent did not come to the Chelsea game and we have never made any offer or suggested other players as part of a transfer deal.” The Spanish press had been trying to claim that Rafa was ready to part company with Morientes in order to get hold of the winger.

Now the Spanish papers are claiming the Geordies are looking to buy Joaquin, and the Spanish star confirmed the story – sort of. Speaking to Marca of the Newcastle interest, he said: “I cannot deny that these rumours are true.” So did this mean he’d be teaming up with his compatriot Albert Luque? Joaquin said, “It’s silly to talk about this because there is no offer”.

Joaquin says he’ll wait and see what Santa brings before saying much more: “A thousand things could happen at Christmas, but at the moment it’s not a good idea to talk about anything. In these difficult times it’s always nice when a mythical team from the Premier League such as Newcastle have their sights on you.”