Liverpool entering key phase: Benitez
Liverpool begin what manager Rafa Benitez calls "the most crucial phase" of their season with a Merseyside derby at home to Everton today.
Benitez's side are entering a run of three games that could determine their chances of qualifying for the Champions League: they travel to Arsenal in midweek, and then host Manchester City. Victory at lunchtime today would lift the Reds into the top four above Spurs, who kick off in the evening.
"We talk about crucial times and this period is very important," said Benitez. "I've spoken with the players and we have been analysing what we have until the end of the season and this is the most crucial phase.
"We are close to the top four and we cannot make too many mistakes and we play against three teams that are around us. It is important to keep winning games to maintain the momentum. We want to make sure we get back into the top four and this is the first opportunity to do that."
The two teams are well matched in terms of form, with Liverpool unbeaten in six league games -- having conceded just once in that period -- and Everton having not lost in nine. The Toffees' last league defeat came in the derby at Goodison Park at the end of November but history will be against them at a ground where they have not won for 11 years.
However, Benitez does not believe form will have much of an impact.
"Both Everton and us and are on a good run so both will come into the game with confidence," he said.
"But in the past sometimes we were not in a good moment and won and sometimes we were in a good moment and lost. A derby is a derby and is different to any other game, so form is not the most important thing now."
Merseyside derbies have been littered with red cards over the years and Benitez is keen for his players to keep their cool, while still embracing the passion of the encounter.
"You have to play with passion and your brain and that way you will be better and be able to control the game," said the Spaniard, who has lost just two of his 11 Premier League derbies. "It is important to keep calm and try to play good football."
The match takes on greater significance for local lads Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, but Benitez stressed that all his players were aware of the importance of the clash.
"The players have confidence and don't want to lose any game but for a local player not to lose this game is maybe more important," he said. "Gerrard and Carragher can be an inspiration for the other players because they have passion."
It is likely that the more defensively-minded Lucas will be restored to the central midfield battleground at the expense of playmaker Alberto Aquilani but Benitez is confident his Italian summer signing can cope with the big occasion.
"Aquilani has played for Roma against Lazio so he has some experience of derbies and he has quality and can play if necessary," he added.
Meanwhile, Benitez's Everton counterpart David Moyes reckons Liverpool's financial problems may leave them struggling to keep pace with the Premier League elite, just as the Toffees have been for so long.
With Liverpool's books groaning under the weight of the £237m debt laden on by owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Benitez has been condemned to spending only what he raises through player sales for the past two years.
It is a problem familiar to Moyes after eight years of scrimping and saving to keep his club competitive.
"They (Liverpool) have had a decade of overspending and because of it we have found it difficult to match them," said the Scot. "Now, though, maybe it is changing for them. Maybe they are going to be in a similar situation to Everton.
"For eight or nine years we have had to deal at a different level but then be judged on equal terms on the pitch. But because of things changing, maybe it is closer now."
Benitez, for his part, needs to help Liverpool avoid the £10m loss in revenue they would incur through missing out on next season's Champions League.
"Hopefully we will not have a lack of money because we will be in the Champions League," he said.
Everton striker Louis Saha has signed a two-year contract extension which will keep him at Goodison Park until the summer of 2012.
Liverpool v Everton
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