After all of the joy of beating London side Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday, Liverpool are now hoping for success in the capital on Sunday. The trouble is that they travel to Highbury to face an Arsenal side that have only lost one home league game this season. Liverpool have only managed to win five games away from home this season – losing ten – so need to put on the type of performance that brought them so much praise earlier this week.
Arsenal won’t be lying down on Sunday – they need to win two out of their remaining three games to be sure of second place in the league. Second place in the Premiership would allow Arsenal straight into next season’s group stages of the Champions League. Liverpool need to win both of their last two matches to have any chance of fourth place. Even then Everton must lose two of their last three games – including their visit to Highbury.
Benitez is trying to rally his troops for the task by reminding them that their performances now will help him in his team selection for the game in Istanbul. "The games against Arsenal and Aston Villa are now our most important fixtures, not the final," said Rafa. "It’s going to be difficult against Arsenal, but we have two games to get into the top four and then we’ll have 10 days to prepare for the final. We have a week to prepare between each game so we don’t need to change players to give them a rest." Liverpool returned to training today after a 48-hour break to recover from the emotionally-charge victory on Tuesday.
Liverpool’s injury crisis is almost over, which means that Benitez has a wider range of players to choose from. He’s still got four important players out of action though – ‘keeper Chris Kirkland, full-back Josemi and strikers Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama-Pongolle. The two strikers both scored in Liverpool’s last group game in the Champions League against Olympiacos. Mellor rescued three points against Arsenal at Anfield earlier this season with a wonder goal right at the end of the match.
The players that are left know that if they are given a chance in the remaining two league games they have to take it. "If they work hard they can play against Arsenal, Aston Villa and in the Champions League final. I’ve told the players not to think about the final until after these two games. We must be concentrating on the league. They will be focused on Arsenal. With two more games there is no problem with our mentality." Back in the squad is Xabi Alonso – suspended for Tuesday’s game but a certainty for the final – injuries permitting.
Liverpool need to get into the top four regardless of how well they do in Istanbul after the FA changed their interpretation of the Champions League qualifying rules. Benitez continued: "If we win our last two games we could be in the top four and then we’ll be even happier before we go to Istanbul."
Benitez doesn’t want his team to let up: "To win trophies in the future means playing to a high level in every game, not just in Europe. We can’t think it’s okay to come fifth just because we’ve reached the final. We must try to finish in the top four. If we win both our games, it’s possible."
He also doesn’t expect the Arsenal team to let-up, and was surprised that they didn’t challenge Chelsea for the title as much as the rest of the country would have liked: "After last season I thought they would be closer to Chelsea. They are still fighting for second place. They don’t want to play in the qualification stage next year and they will try to win against us."
And after a whole season of the English press telling us that Gerrard is off to Chelsea, no sooner are the stories finally put to bed than along come the Spanish press. Benitez has already said that agents in Spain are busy linking their players to Liverpool to help get better deals. Rumours started earlier this week that Real Madrid were ready to make an offer of anywhere between £20million and £30million pounds for Gerrard. Now reports are saying that Liverpool are arranging a swap deal – and Benitez denied these stories point blank: "The reports say we have agreed to sell Gerrard and say we are meeting Guti’s agent next week. This is not true. Guti is a fantastic player but he is not a player we want to sign for Liverpool."
Expect more and more rumours about Gerrard, even if he signs a new deal tomorrow and has Liverpool tattoed on his forehead.