Liverpool go into tonight’s clash with Sunderland hoping for a win to make it five-in-a-row in the league. Six clean sheets in a row (including the Champions League fixtures) is the best run they’ve had since the 1987-88 season, and they won the league that year. Tonight’s game against the bottom-of-the-table side should in theory be another win and another clean sheet, but Rafael Benitez is determined his team are professional enough to realise that upsets are common in football, especially if a team goes into a game thinking it’s already won. The last time Sunderland won a home Premiership match was three years ago, against Liverpool.
The danger of going into tonight’s match full of over-confidence is a sign of how Liverpool have started to improve. If anything Liverpool seemed to lack confidence for a spell during this season, and that was starting to cost them in the league. Now Rafa says that his work on keeping the goals out is giving his players more all-round self-belief: "It is improving the confidence of the team because we are keeping so many clean sheets, we know we are harder to beat and makes it easier to win. Last season we were losing games 1-0 all the time, but this season we know we can win games as we rarely concede goals."
It’s not gone unnoticed for Rafa that their success in Istanbul has enhanced Liverpool’s reputation: "We have earned respect because of what happened in the Champions League. Now when people lose to us I hear them saying ‘but they are European Champions’, and that is true. It has given us more confidence and we go into games thinking we can win. That is the big difference to last season."
Rafa has set himself and his players a big target before they head overseas next month for the World Club Championships: "It will be fantastic for us to go to Japan with three more league wins. That is my aim, we have three more league games and one in the Champions League and I want us to still be unbeaten before we leave."
One of the reasons Liverpool’s performances seemed worse earlier in the season was because of the league games they’d had cancelled or postponed because of other matches. They won the European Super Cup on the weekend they had been scheduled to play Arsenal, and other games were missed because of the Champions League qualifying games. Tonight’s game itself has been brought forward from it’s original date which clashed with the Japanese tournament. Rafa says that keeping themselves unbeaten before heading out to Japan will mean that the league table will be a better guide to Liverpool’s progress: "That will mean that we will be higher in the table, certainly in the top three or four and the league will have a more realistic look about it because right from the start of the season we have played less than our rivals. We want to go to Japan in as strong a position as possible. Then I hope we will win there and come back for the Christmas period when we play four more games in eight days – two at home – and hopefully maintain our form and this run."
Rafa also had some words of encouragement for Mick McCarthy, his opposite number at Sunderland: "I know Sunderland are bottom and having a difficult time, but in the Premier League you never know what games will be the easier ones, and I remember how well they played at Anfield earlier in the season. There is no such thing as an easy game in England. For me, Mick McCarthy did a really good job to take them to promotion last season and he is doing the same this season even though the Premiership is another level and that means it is more difficult. For now though, I give him support and say that if the people there wait and allow him to keep working the way he is, they will get out of the bottom three."
Rafa pointed out that he’s not expecting anything about tonight’s game to be easy: "We must respect Sunderland, they had a very good season to win promotion but this is a different level and it is normal that new clubs find that hard at first. They are professionals, they will win games, but I hope it is from this weekend and not this week!"
Rafa feels they’ll be desperate to beat the Reds: "I am sure they will really go for us, they will try to put us under pressure, so we have to be aware of that."
Mick McCarthy says that the contrasting form of the two clubs could put more of the pressure on the European Champions: "No disrespect to Portsmouth, Aston Villa and Birmingham City, but playing against Liverpool is a different pressure. Those clubs might be at the bottom all season long scrapping it out, Liverpool won’t be. They will be pushing for a Champions League spot, no question. They have been moving up the league. The pressure is slightly different, they are expected to turn us over without any problem."
McCarthy is glad that the game has come so soon after a game at the weekend that he found frustrating: "It’s nice to have the game coming around so quickly after last Saturday’s disappointing last 20-minute performance against Birmingham as the players have not had too long to think about it. I don’t hide away from the facts of life or the facts of football. I might be a little more kinder or a little more gentler with my tone but I don’t think 32,000 Sunderland fans want me to try and defend the last 20 minutes of the Birmingham match. I want a performance the crowd can be proud of like earlier in the season when we were producing good displays without the results."
McCarthy wants a turnaround to come soon otherwise their season will be beyond repair far too early: "I don’t want us to be cast adrift and too far back. We want to be in with a shout all season long. It went to the last day of the season last season and we would like to get ourselves in that position. We were no better, no worse, than Portsmouth, Aston Villa and Birmingham until they scored. We were all very ordinary until they scored and I just wish we had had the chance to score first."
Sunderland have something else in common with Liverpool – a summer striking signing yet to score for his new club. With Liverpool it’s Peter Crouch, with Sunderland it’s £1.9m signing Jon Stead. McCarthy is as defensive of his own signing as Rafa Benitez is of his: "Stead has done really well recently and if I am looking for any bright spots it has come from him and young goalkeeper Ben Alnwick. He had opportunities earlier in the season and did not take them but he has performed better and worked harder. He has looked more like the player I was expecting and you never know, he might get that first goal ahead of Peter Crouch."