RAFA BENITEZ has broken what is almost the habit of a lifetime by admitting that Liverpool's encounter with Tottenham Hotspur will "make or break" his side's season.
Benitez never usually answers a question directly if there are other avenues to lead his interrogators down, but he was unequivocal yesterday in his opinion that a victory over Harry Redknapp's side tonight is an absolute must if Liverpool's hopes of a Champions League spot are to be realised.
Apart from his infamous notepad assault on Alex Ferguson last January when he believed the wider world needed to know some "facts" about the United manager and his claims last month that he could "guarantee" a Champions League finish, Benitez prefers to be evasive at best and silent at worst.
He is not one to concern himself with the fripperies and significances of a mere 90 minutes of play, usually preferring to look at the bigger picture. But as of now, there is no bigger picture. Just the events at Anfield tonight.
"Yes," was his answer when asked if tonight's match was a "make-or-break" encounter. "There's a big difference between being one point behind and seven points behind. It's an important game for us," he added.
"If Tottenham win, it will give them a buzz and a lift and they will have confidence, but if we can beat them, then we'll be in a good position. And when a team is fighting from behind it gives you more confidence."
The fact that Benitez has not already started to give up on his hopes of maintaining the hegemony of the top four is a credit to his self-confidence, but he also maintains that the lax showing of other contenders in and around the business end of the Premier League has also opened the door for Liverpool to still be contenders.
He has a point. Liverpool may well have lost seven matches this term, but Manchester United have also been defeated more times this season than in the entirety of last year and the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea also look on course to follow that trend.
That means Liverpool, despite a season of almost relentless woe, are not dead yet and it is to that straw that Benitez can be found clutching.
"I think it is a different league this year," Benitez said. "Every team is losing games and dropping points. So, it is very important for us to improve right now.
"We are so close that if we beat Tottenham we will go to just one point behind them and we will be in the middle of the race. It's true that we were not doing well, but I think that we will be in the race until the end."
That race, clearly, has become all the more draining since Liverpool added Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun to their list of walking wounded.
Maxi Rodriguez and Alberto Aquilani may both start tonight, while Benitez has welcomed Ryan Babel back into the fold after revealing the Dutch international had "apologised" for his Twitter rant, declaring the matter "over."
Regardless, there can be no question that Benitez's squad is stretched in terms of quality as well as quantity.
England's most decorated club will face direct rivals in the chase for the Champions League with either a French rookie or a striker deemed insufficiently effective two years ago leading their line.
That Robbie Keane and Peter Crouch return to Anfield tonight will only serve to provide ammunition to those who believe Benitez has allowed Liverpool to regress under his tenure.
The Spaniard, unsurprisingly, gives short shrift to such a notion. Allowing two proven Premier League strikers to leave was not so much folly as necessity. "You have to analyse each decision in context and you will find a reason why," he said. "Each club has its own problems and sometimes you have to sell if you want to buy."
Liverpool (probable 4-2-3-1) -- Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Rodriguez, Aquilani, Fabio Aurelio; Kuyt.
Tottenham (probable 4-4-2) -- Gomes; Corluka, Dawson, Bassong, Bale; Kranjcar, Jenas, Palacios, Modric; Defoe, Crouch.
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