England coach Sven Goran Ericsson was sitting in the directors box at Real Betis last night – alongside Rick Parry – and will no doubt have been pleased with the performance of Peter Crouch, getting his first taste of the group stages of the Champions League. As is inevitable with a national press so obsessed with the national team, Reds boss Rafael Benitez was asked how he felt Crouch had performed in front of the England manager. Rafa said: "Peter Crouch played very well in the first half, he has done his England chances no harm. Sven knows he is a good target man, he keeps possession well for us and allows us to play our football much higher up the park rather than in defence."
Crouch was only joined in the starting line-up by one other Englishman last night – defender Jamie Carragher captained the side with club captain Steven Gerrard rested. Temperatures at kick-off were 85 degrees and Rafa felt that the fresher legs of Sissoko and Alonso would fare better than Gerrard’s legs. Gerrard had been thrust into international duty for England after barely having time to recover from injury, and like other players in the squad Rafa felt the heat and the type of game may have been too much for him. Gerrard did come on for the last 20 minutes, but this will ensure he’s fitter for the weekend clash with Manchester United.
Rafa tried to explain his decision: "We tried to protect Steven, there were a few players in the same condition. I felt we needed fresh legs for a very difficult match. Some people were tired, including Steven, and we needed to rest players for this match. We must use all of our squad to compete in the very top competitions." Liverpool’s early start to competitive football this season – on July 13th – is mixed with extra games to fit in for the likes of last month’s Super Cup Final (which they won) and the World Club tournament in December. All in all Liverpool have a heavy schedule ahead, which will include long spells of two games a week.
Rafa used as many players with experience of La Liga as possible in last night’s game. Pepe Reina, Josemi, Luis Garcia, Xabi Alonso and Momo Sissoko were all signed from teams in the Spanish league, Bolo Zenden was a Barcelona player prior to arriving in England. Rafa knew it would be a tough game, and was pleased that the game went to plan – for the first half at least: "We controlled the first half, but the second period was a problem. In fact, when I brought Cisse on for Peter Crouch it changed the game. He had pace and fresh legs and they had to defend against him and always be aware. In the end we finished the stronger side after a difficult spell. Earlier we had controlled the situation and had a very clear idea of when and how we would break."
Liverpool’s win means they go into the clash with Chelsea in a fortnight level on points with the new enemy. Most people believe that the top two will be a straight fight between the two English sides and Betis. To beat Betis means that the Reds have taken points off on of those two main rivals for a place in the next phase. The atmosphere in Seville last night was as close to an English atmosphere as you are likely to come up against on the continent, as Rafa expected: "It was very important that we started this group with a win. Betis are a good side on their own ground, with a very strong support, and if they are able to get forward and attack they will cause other teams in this group many problems. I am always thinking only of winning, whatever game, and that includes our next match at home to Chelsea in this group."