Liverpool face Arsenal this afternoon at Anfield aiming to prevent a whitewash. Liverpool lost to Arsenal at the Emirates in the reverse league fixture, and then lost twice in the space of a few days to crash out of the FA Cup and League Cup, both games played at Anfield.
Since then Arsenal have been knocked out of both the FA Cup and the Champions League, not to mention them being beaten in the Carling Cup final. Liverpool still have genuine hopes of going all the way in the Champions League, having reached the quarter-finals, but both sides are playing today to try and ensure they finish in the top four and book a place in the qualifiers for next season's tournament. As well as that, there's the pride involved in trying to finish above the other. "I think it's a really important game," says Reds boss Rafa Benitez, "We know we have to beat them because it's important we stay in the top four, and it would help in finishing third, which would be perfect. If Arsenal win, because they have a game in hand, they will have more possibilities. If we win, I think things will be closer but we'll still have to win more games."
Rafa is never happy with the lack of time he's given following international breaks, and he says he's going to have to work out which players are best equipped for today's match: "You know it's not easy to have all the players focused after an international break. We need to decide which players will be best prepared mentally for this game against Arsenal. We will select the best players in our opinion. It's always really bad to play important games when you cannot prepare properly during the week. It's frustrating but we will try to do our best."
So will the three defeats against the former Highbury side give Liverpool an extra boost today in going for the win? "I hope so," says the boss, "For me it's a motivation to beat Arsenal, and I think for the players it will be the same." He says he'll be reminding the players about those losses, "because I need to be sure the players know how important it is to win and how important it is to win against a top side."
Rafa will be hoping his captain Steven Gerrard leads his club team-mates today the way he did for his international team-mates in midweek. Gerrard scored twice as England finally managed to break down an Andorran side who weren't even willing to play for a draw, just to minimise the size of their defeat. He says of his skipper's performance: "It was really good. I was pleased to see him play well and score goals. He showed a lot of character." Liverpool have had their fair share of games against small clubs who just don't show any kind of ambition to win and Rafa hopes his own players will learn from how Gerrard handled this game in midweek: "It was important for the team to see this kind of play, to see the right kind of mentality for these types of games. He was saying: 'Give me the ball and I will do my best.'"
Rafa, speaking to liverpoolfc.tv, wouldn't reveal any details of injuries, although there are some minor concerns: "We have some players with kicks and others who are tired, but we need to wait until before kick-off, then we'll see." And he says Peter Crouch could be back in contention after his recent operation: "Yes, I think he's fit, he could be in the squad."
After the game comes Rafa's big meeting with the club's new owners. Last time he met them they'd just taken the majority shareholding over from David Moores, but they have now completed their takeover with just a handful of shares left out of their hands, all of which they are entitled to buy without opposition. Rafa has swapped emails and phone calls with them in recent weeks and already feels they see things pretty much the same. It's still important that their face-to-face meeting goes ahead though: "I think it's an important meeting – everyone is talking about this. I hope it will be a very positive meeting. I think they have experience in sport and also they are businessmen. I think they understand my ideas. In my opinion, we will be going in the same direction."
Rafa says this is one of the big reasons that ensured he turned down all interest from other clubs for his services: "The new owners say they want to go forward, they want to invest and they want to improve in all areas. That is the key for me in thinking about the future. I think we will have a lot of possibilities."
George Gillett and Tom Hicks will be at today's game which kicks off at 12.45pm UK time.