Rafa expects tough game, Koeman confident of win

European Champions Liverpool will travel to Portugal tomorrow ahead of Tuesday night’s Champions League game against Benfica. It’s Liverpool’s 40th game in the competition since it got its new name, but five-times winners Liverpool have played 127 European Cup games in its different formats.

Reds boss Rafael Benítez has taken Liverpool to play away from home in Europe 15 times, losing just twice. It’s some time since they did lose an away fixture – 11 matches now without defeat, conceding just ten goals in all of those games, including three in the first half of last season’s final against AC Milan. Three of those away fixtures were in this season’s qualifiers, games played on a home-and-away knockout basis. That’s the format the European Cup was in when Liverpool won their first four European titles, and the format that returns for the rest of this season’s competition before May’s Paris final.
Rafa is glad to be going into this first leg on the back of some good results. Liverpool’s have just won three games in a row by getting the only goal of each game, the last two against Arsenal and Manchester United. Rafa said: “People said some days ago that we had an important week coming up and they were right. We’ve had two good wins so far and now we want to earn a good result against Benfica.”

Rafa is careful how he chooses his words when asked about how tired his
players are after so many games this season. He doesn’t want his
players to start believing they are too tired to perform well, and so
avoids words like ‘fatigue’ and says their enthusiasm to play overcomes
any tiredness: “The character of the players has been fantastic and the
energy levels have been magnificent. Victories over teams as good as
Arsenal and Manchester United are always going to be good for
confidence and we will go to Benfica feeling happy. We don’t have any
new injury problems since the United game but some of the players might
be a bit tired. That’s okay and it’s normal. Winning matches is a great
way to fight off any tiredness and I’m sure they’re all desperate to
play against Benfica.”

As good as Liverpool’s away record in Europe with Benítez is, it
doesn’t make the game a formality. Liverpool and Benfica have at least
one thing in common – both clubs ended Manchester United’s hopes in one
cup competition this season. United’s disappointment at being knocked
out of the FA Cup at Anfield yesterday was all the more disappointing
with already having been eliminated from Europe by Benfica earlier in
the season. Liverpool have been keeping an eye on Benfica and Rafa says
they need to work hard to overcome them: “We know it won’t be an easy
game because Benfica are a good team with good players. We have been
following their results and their performances since the draw was made
and we’ll be making sure the players know what to expect on the night.”

Rafa’s opposite number at Benfica, Ronald Koeman, points to the United
win as evidence his side could send the holders crashing out. He says:
“We eliminated Manchester United so why can’t we beat Liverpool as
well? The bad thing for us is that we have to play the second leg at
Anfield, and we know what an imposing, difficult place that is to win
matches.” Maybe Jose Mourinho’s experiences at Anfield last season in
this tournament didn’t go unnoticed in his home country.

One player Liverpool can’t use on Tuesday is Jan Kromkamp. Kromkamp is
cup-tied for the competition having already played in it for Villareal.
The advantage for Liverpool is that Villareal were in the same group as
United and Benfica, and so the Dutch star has been able to add his own
input to the scouting reports. He revealed some of observations from
his matches against them, saying: “Benfica are a good team with the
ball, and they did not like to give it away.  The Portuguese
international Petit is important to them in midfield and most of their
play goes through him.”

There’s also a word about a former Liverpool target. Simao was set to
sign for Liverpool right at the close of the August transfer window,
only for Benfica to raise the price at the last possible moment.
Liverpool have since seemingly given up on the player, but he could be
one to cause Liverpool trouble. Kromkamp says: “If you give Simao time
to control the ball and size you up he can be hard to play against, but
we have excellent defenders who cope with top players all the time.”
Peter Crouch got the winner on Saturday but Liverpool have been
criticised for not having enough potency from their strikers this
season. Kromkamp says this isn’t a problem for the Portuguese side:
“Nuno Gomez is a tough striker because he can score every type of goal
– in the air and with both feet and he’s always alert.”

Kromkamp says that Benfica are likely to play a very attacking game:
“The one way we can exploit them is in defence. At home their fans will
want them to come out and attack us and they get both their full backs
involved. That could well give us the space to exploit because there
will be spaces at the back. That is where we will have joy.”
For Kromkamp it’s frustrating he can’t take part in the game, but he’s
desperate for his team-mates to continue their defence of their title:
“We are holders of the European Cup and we must defend it with all our
lives. I am pretty disappointed not to be able to play any more times
in Europe this season, but that is just the way it is. The Champions
League was very nice to play in because it was a very high level with
almost all the world watching the matches. I’d love to be playing
against Benfica but I am sure the lads will do a great job and
progress, my focus has to be on domestic football but I will there
supporting the team from the stands.”