Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez knows the result of tonight’s Champions League fixture with Marseilles could decide his future for him. Liverpool have to win to be sure of getting through to the next stage of the competition, and without doing so the club’s current owners could decide to carry out their alleged threat to sack the popular Spaniard.
Watching tonight’s game will be one of those co-owners, George Gillett Junior. He was due to arrive in Europe later in the week in time for the Manchester United game, but instead found time to travel a little earlier. He’s expected to meet with Rafa in France.
Speaking at the press conference yesterday, Rafa joked about Gillett’s presence when asked if it would make a difference to his plans: “No. He is not available for tomorrow so it’s not a big difference for my team selection!”
Some Liverpool supporters made their minds up some time ago, for various reasons, that Rafa wasn’t the man for the job at Anfield. Many fans have their moments of criticism for the manager, usually in hindsight, but the vast majority of Liverpool supporters trust in him as the only man who can bring us silverware, in particular the league title. After losing on Saturday the press had a field day in their criticism of the coach, but Rafa says he only knows about this because of what he’s been told by others. And he says he doesn’t feel under extra pressure as a result: “We have lost one game, same as Arsenal, so I was surprised by the reaction after the weekend. I haven’t read any of the press reports, listened to the radio or watched the TV, but I have been told.”
He says that perhaps the magnitude of tonight’s game was playing on the minds of his squad: “I know it was a game everyone expected us to win, but too many things went wrong for us – penalties and things – and we know we didn’t play at our level. Maybe sometimes when you are so close to such an important game you cannot control everything and maybe the players were thinking about tonight’s game.”
The reason this week is so important for the club is because of that threat of the sack, a threat the club still haven’t denied hangs over the manager. But Rafa says that if the next couple of games go well then this week might be forgotten: “Maybe in three games time we will be talking about another most important week of the season because we will be playing more important games.”
A draw would only be enough tonight if Besiktas managed an unlikely victory over Porto, so tonight really is a “must win” game. Rafa feels his side can do it: “We have confidence – it’s a game for people with character and quality, and we have people who have both those characteristics, but let’s remember, I would like to be in a situation like this. We are not talking about playing for a place in the middle of the table. We are playing for a place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League and we want to win trophies.”
Not that the manager expects an easy ride: “We know they were a difficult team to play against at Anfield,” explained Benitez. “They were not playing well before that game, but they have a new manager and now I think they are playing a little bit better. We know it will be a tough game, and it is also important for them so we know it will be difficult. We know a lot about them, but I am sure they will know a lot about us.”
And he was quick to point out that he had warned this group wasn’t quite as easy as some claimed it would be: “Everybody said before the Anfield game the group was easy. But if you remember I said at the time it would be tough because they all have experience of Europe. They had 10 days training with a new manager and were really focused on that match.”
Rafa admitted that his substitutions on Saturday were made with an eye on tonight’s fixture, but says he’ll not be doing the same thing tonight with regards Sunday’s visit of Manchester United: “This is an important game, but I am just thinking about this game and then after that I will think of the United game. There won’t be any substitutions with Manchester United in mind. This time it is different. It was difficult for this game because we had only three games to prepare after the Reading match. But after Marseille we have four days and that is enough time for resting and for players to be fit again.”
One player who is hoped to start tonight is Fernando Torres. He was brought off early against Reading after suffering a knock, and on Sunday was unable to train properly due to a bug. He was asked at the weekend how he felt about stories Rafa might be out of job if Liverpool lose: “It would be a huge mistake to think about changing the manager if we do not get the win we need,” said the striker. “Rafa Benitez has done so much for this club and the staff, the fans and the players are behind him. We all need to be united in order to get a result in France. The match must be the only thing we think of at this time. We cannot be distracted by anything else. It is the most important match since I joined.”
Of course both sides know a win is a must: “It is going to be very intense with emotions running high because there is a lot riding on it for Marseille and they will have the crowd behind them, but these are the games I came to England for. These are the experiences I wanted when I joined Liverpool.”
Dutch forward Ryan Babel says pressure is part of life at Anfield: “If you play for a club like Liverpool, there’s always pressure. The boys want to win but we always want to win. The financial implications don’t have much impact on us, although we know how important the match will be. We’ve definitely got more confidence now thanks to our last two games in the Champions League. Because of those results, we really think we can get the win here.”
Rafa is likely to use Babel at some point tonight, either up front or – more likely – out wide: “He’s playing well at the moment,” said Rafa. “He’s good up front but he knows he sometimes has to play on the wings for the team.”