Liverpool’s successful negotiation of the Champions League group stages means that the match in midweek against Chelsea has lost most of its importance for both managers. Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho said as much as soon as Liverpool had helped his team qualify for the next phase, and now Rafael Benitez is saying it too. The league is the priority now until the new year, with the small matter of the World Club Championships having a temporary spell of Liverpool’s main focus. All of this means that tomorrow’s game against Wigan will see nobody held back for Stamford Bridge. Rafa said: “Facing Chelsea in midweek is no dilemma for me. Nobody will be rested for that game, the league points are very important and only after Wigan will I think about my squad for Chelsea. It is really important for us to go to Japan with two more victories in the league.”
A win for Liverpool tomorrow would put them second, for a few hours at least, although they would still be nine points behind Chelsea. At least for those few hours they will have played the same number of games as Chelsea, after spending most of the season with games in hand on the other teams in the Premiership. Now, according to Rafael Benitez, Liverpool have to keep the momentum of the their recent winning run going to avoid the table looking bad for them again on their return from Japan: “We have spent all season catching up the other clubs with the number of games we have played. Always we have been behind because we have played fewer matches because of European commitments. Now we have reached fourth place and we are almost level on games with our rivals. Now the table is more realistic, but when we go to Japan everyone else will play two games while we are away and we could be back down the table again. That is why we must win these two games before we go to the World Club Championship.”
It’s one of the oldest clichés in football, but Rafa agrees that games in hand aren’t as good as points in the bag: “When we come back we will again have games in hand, but the points now are more important.”
Tomorrow’s game may have been seen as a guaranteed win at the start of the season, but Wigan have surprised a lot of people with their surge to the top reaches of the table. One person not surprised is the Liverpool coach, who says he is familiar with Wigan boss Paul Jewell and the rise of Wigan from their non-league status a relatively short time ago: “I am not surprised how well Wigan have done. I have watched tapes and they have a great team spirit and work very hard. They are also well organised and the fact they have been near the top of the table is because they are a good team.”
Rafa thinks he knows how Wigan will play tomorrow, and hopes that his side’s recent strength at Anfield will ensure they come out victorious in this North West derby: “They defend well, have pace and always go forward. They will use the counter attack but we are strong at home and we are always expected to win. Wigan have played very well, their two strikers are quick with great energy and the wingers and midfield confront opponents in possession in their own half. They have balance and skill, nobody should be surprised when a team does all these things that they are winning and doing well.”
Rafa could have just been doing some quick reading-up before the press-conferences, but he claims that he’s known about the ‘Latics from well before he came to these shores: “I know of their history, how they have come from being a non-league football club. Even before I arrived in England I was aware of their progress because I have friends in this country who told me about them. Maybe it is a surprise to see them in the Premier League, but it is no surprise to see how well they are playing.”
Liverpool are looking for new investment right now, with the Kraft family the most recent name linked with moves to put money into the club. Current chairman David Moores has the heart if not the cash to move Liverpool forward to greater heights. If Liverpool can find investment from someone with the attitude of Wigan’s chairman Dave Whelen then the new stadium will be just a formality. Rafael Benitez is an admirer of Whelan’s way of working: “Clubs like Wigan, if they are well organised, can move forward. They are run on commonsense and you can be very successful doing the right things like that. Always when you find a good chairman, a good manager and people with commonsense, it is easier to improve.”
Did Rafa realise how significant this game was to the Wigan manager? He was: “I am aware also that Paul Jewell used to be at Liverpool.”
Jewell was on the Liverpool books for years, but never quite made it as a Liverpool player. It’s not stopped him from loving the club though, as he explains: “I’m not really into all the sentimental stuff that surrounds an ex-player returning to his former club, but I must admit that coming back to Anfield always means a great deal to me. One of the nicest things that has ever happened to me occurred when I returned with Bradford in 1999. My son was mascot and the Kop sang ‘Paul Jewell is a Kopite’. They were right and that will always be the case.”
Jewell was on Liverpool’s books during the glory days of the European Cup wins and is the son of a passionate Red: “The first result I look for after a Wigan game is always Liverpool’s. My dad was a fan and when I was a young kid he used to take me to watch the reserves when the first team were playing away. It really was a dream come true to sign for Liverpool. And the fact I failed to progress to the first team was a source of huge disappointment but I don’t look back with any regrets.”
The squad he was trying to get into was busily winning so many trophies that it was always going to be a tall order to break into that first team, and perhaps Jewell wishes he’d been born five or six years later: “Maybe things would have been different had I played in another era, but to be fair I don’t know whether I was good enough to play for Liverpool first team. The closest I got was being part of the squad that travelled to Bucharest in 1984 to face Dinamo. I failed to make the bench but the memory of being in the dressing room after we’d reached our fourth European Cup Final will live with me forever.”
He’s also got good memories of his time at Melwood: “Another vivid memory is the first time I trained with the first team. They were a man short and I was sent over to join them. I was shaking in my boots and the first thing I did was give the ball away. I got a right rollicking off Souness and Dalglish – I never gave the ball away again after that.”
Wigan’s centre-back Stephan Henchoz will return to Anfield tomorrow for the first time since he left for what he feels were the wrong reasons. He’s shown this season how useful he can be in the Premiership, but is still angry that Rafael Benitez didn’t give him any chances to prove that in a Red shirt: “I had five great years with Liverpool, followed by six bad months. There was sadness at the way it all ended, though. You would not be normal if you weren’t sad after the time spent there and the success we had. I really enjoyed it. I guess everything has to end some time, although I didn’t want it to end as soon as it did.”
Henchoz spent a large part of his career at Anfield, but feels just that first half of last season ranks as the worst part of his whole career: “Last season was really the low point of my career so far, with those six months under Benitez proving to be really hard. I barely played a game. I was rarely given a chance to play. It’s not like I played two or three successive games and was bad. When you don’t have a chance to prove what you can do, it’s not fair and very difficult to understand, but that’s the way it was."
His short-term stay north of the border with Celtic last season proved to be a bad time for the Swiss international too, so he snatched Wigan’s hands off when they came in for him: “I knew people were saying it would be difficult to stay up but I wanted to return to England and Wigan were giving me the opportunity. I’ve certainly had no regrets.”
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