Liverpool travel to Reading today in the Premiership for the first time and Liverpool are looking to hold onto their current third-place position. With the Reds’ impressive 3-0 win over PSV Eindhoven in midweek Rafa can actually consider putting out a team full of players that he might otherwise have rested had they not been so far ahead in the tie. There’s still work to be done to ensure they do progress on Wednesday, but there’s no doubting Rafa can prepare in a different way to how he might have expected.
For the Reading boss Steve Coppell this is one of the fixtures he’s been looking forward to all season. He says that as a child he went to Anfield to watch the Reds, even though he eventually made his name as a player for one of the club’s enemies – Manchester United. He said: “I look on this as a really exciting celebration. For us to welcome Liverpool to our stadium is a fabulous occasion. It's one we should not be intimidated by, no matter what happens, and I am really looking forward to it.”
He’s aware that Liverpool will arrive at the Madjeski on the back of some good results – Tuesday’s win had followed a 4-1 defeat of fourth-placed Arsenal: “They're hitting a rich vein of form at the right time, and the performance in midweek was outstanding. First and foremost they're effective, but also attractive as well.” He does think that Rafa will change his team though: It will be a different team this weekend, but they've still got such depth. The prospect of many more millions in the summer means they look to be a club with a rich future – both immediate and long term. If they play well they'll beat us, so we've got to stop them from doing that. We've got to play well and have a plan.”
Liverpool’s boss Rafael Benítez is impressed with the work of the Reading boss and doesn’t expect an easy game against a side pushing for European qualification: “Steve Coppell has done a good job. They are well organised and at the beginning of the season they played with a high tempo, and now with the campaign coming to an end they are still playing with that same tempo. That means he has done a good job.”
Coppell is respected by many in the game and Rafa is no different: “Steve was the best manager in the Championship, now he has shown what a good manager he is in the Premiership. We have a good relationship, and we have played them twice and it has always been difficult. They go forward quickly, and they are playing as well now as they were six months ago. That is something that is hard to achieve.”
And Rafa won’t be assuming the game’s over even if they do take the lead: “They make life difficult. I recall seeing them being 3-0 down at home to Manchester United, but they came back to 2-3 and were pushing all the time at the end. That shows their mentality is good.”
Rafa is determined that whichever players he picks are aware of the importance of this match, and hinted that Tuesday’s result allows him to pick a stronger side than he might have done otherwise: “We can rotate our players, but I must impress upon them that finishing third is our objective. It is important and we must concentrate on the Reading game, because we are very close to a semi-final place now.”
Liverpool aren’t through to the semis yet, but barring a collapse they should be. They’ll go into Wednesday’s second leg already knowing who they would face in the semis, the winners of Tuesday’s tie between Rafa’s former club Valencia and 2005 semi-final losers Chelsea. Rafa couldn’t decide who he though was most likely to go through: “It is difficult to say who are the favourites, maybe playing in the Mestalla is a benefit for Valencia, but Chelsea have quality and like to play on the counter-attack. It will be a tough game for both clubs.”