Benitez will use players to suit Red’s needs

Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez has answered complaints from Sheffield United boss Neil Warnock that the Reds won’t be putting a great deal of effort into their final two league fixtures.

Liverpool are assured of a top-four place in the league and have a Champions League final to look forward to. Their next two games are against two teams involved in the battle to avoid relegation – Fulham today and Charlton next week. Warnock thinks that leaves his side at a disadvantage: “It might not be good news for us that Liverpool progressed. They are going to be involved in some important matches, from our perspective at least, between now and the end.” He does however accept that with the Blades currently in a place outside the relegation zone they are in charge of their own destiny: “The situation is in our own hands now, so we've got to make sure we keep it that way.”

Rafa sympathises with Warnock, but says Liverpool won’t be the only team in the league trying out new players or giving the less-used player a run-out: “It's difficult to do the right things by everyone. I'm sure the teams in the middle of the table will try to use some young players, or players who haven't played a lot during the season because it needs to be decided if they get new contracts.”
All teams who are going through the motions of completing the league programme will be using different players to what they’d be using if the results mattered, says Rafa: “If you play against Watford, and I have a lot of respect for them, but now they are relegated I don't think they'll play with the same players now as three months ago, because they'll be thinking about preparing for the future. I think it will be similar with a lot of teams. We'll try to do our best, we'll use a good team with senior players, but we will try to use our squad.”
Liverpool fans want to see the Reds end the league season with two wins and third-place, but don’t want to see key players missing for the final in Athens. At the same time it will be three weeks between the semi-final and the final and Rafa knows some players will actually benefit from being used rather than rested. Then there’s the bonus of being able to give the youngsters a rare chance to play in the Premiership. “We need to think about the final but we also want to finish third,” says Rafa, “We will do a professional job, but everybody needs to understand that our priority is the final.”
In a later interview, on the official Liverpool FC website, Rafa was asked again how important these next two games were to him: “They are important in terms of being professional and finishing third. You know the other teams are involved in relegation, but my idea is to use the squad. It's been the same during the whole season. It could be a risk to use players who played 90 minutes plus extra-time against Chelsea. I explained my idea before Portsmouth and I'll do the same now. Some teams in the middle of the table will use their squad because they are thinking about the future. Maybe Watford will use some young players. The situation is similar for all the teams, you must accept this, but we will try to do our job and try to win.”

As well as looking to improve and strengthen his squad this summer with new signings, Rafa needs to make sure he doesn’t lose his existing key players due to new rules that allow players to buy themselves out of their contracts. Rafa says they’ve been speaking to those key men about new deals, and that talks were going well until they all agreed to put them on hold temporarily: “We have had conversations with four or five of them,” says Rafa. “We decided to stop the conversations because we were in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Now we will talk again and try to finish something before the final, but okay, if we cannot do it we will try and do it after. These players have contracts and it's not a problem. We need to show them that we want to do a deal, because if you don't do anything they want to know why. We are really close with one, two or three, and also with the young players we are really close.” He said the talks were with: “Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Carra, Finnan and the young players.”
Pepe Reina deserves two medals if we go on to win the final in Athens for his performance in the semi-final. He made important saves in open play in both legs, and then saved two of the three penalties he faced in the shootout. Rafa is obviously delighted with the player he brought over from Spain: “I said when he arrived that he was the best keeper in Spain. Now you can say he is one of the best in the world, but not just as a goalkeeper. His mentality is really good. He has a really good character, he's really positive. He has determination, he wants to improve, wants to learn; he is a very good team-mate.” As for the penalties: “We knew how good he was with penalties in Spain. Now we see it every week in training, and that's one of the things you look for when you're talking about top-class keepers.”

The off-field hype for the final has already begun, with Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso claiming Manchester United were better than long-ball playing Liverpool, but Rafa seems reluctant to be drawn into another war of words like that which surrounded the Chelsea games: “I was surprised at the game, because people were talking about United as favourites. Gattuso is a good player, but I don't think he's seen every game of our team. I prefer not to talk about comments after a semi-final. We will try to be calm and analyse what we can do on the pitch instead of talking about the other team.”
Last time Liverpool won the Champions League, in 2005, they did so after stuttering through the league season. They finished fifth in the league that season, and although they’ve been much better in the league this time round they’ve not been convincing throughout. They’ve been written off numerous times during the Champions League run too, but Rafa had faith in his squad: “The question is, people see us every week in the Premiership and can maybe have some doubts, but, because we have been playing well in the Champions League, I had confidence. To play against Barcelona or PSV or Chelsea, a fantastic team, maybe people were saying it's enough just to be in the semis, but at the end of the day, we have a very good team spirit, and the supporters behind us, which is key.”

Back to today’s game at Craven Cottage and opposing manager Lawrie Sanchez  doesn’t believe for a moment that they’ll have an easy ride agains the Reds. Currently doing the job in a caretaker capacity, Sanchez says the depth of Liverpool’s squad is such that even the second-choice players are of a high-quality: “Liverpool can afford a squad – it doesn't matter who they play they're all top calibre players. Their players are competing for European Cup places so they've all got something to prove tomorrow.”

Sanchez was asked again about his FA Cup winning goal when playing for Wimbledon against Liverpool at Wembley, when the then London-based club overcame the odds to beat the Reds. He claims his current squad didn’t even know about it: “The 1988 cup final was an individual thing as a player. This isn't me against Liverpool. This is about this group of players against the Liverpool side. The players here don't even know I played in the 1988 cup final! Most of them weren't even born! You are talking about a different generation.”