Monday 18 December 2017

Benitez puts faith in firing front line for twin assault

Ian Herbert

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is looking forward to utilising all his attacking options for their crucial Premier League run-in.

The team rightly received plaudits for their performance, particularly in the first half, against Sunderland at the weekend when they played a brand of football which had been missing for most of the season.

Deploying Steven Gerrard in a more orthodox central midfield position but with licence to roam forward allowed Benitez to field Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt, Ryan Babel and Fernando Torres in front of the captain. And with full-backs Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua providing more width down the flanks, Sunderland were torn apart with a high-tempo passing game which could have produced half a dozen goals.

It is unlikely Benitez will be so bold in all six of their remaining league matches -- particularly at Birmingham City on Sunday and at home to Chelsea on the penultimate weekend of the season -- but the Liverpool manager feels having plenty of choices could be key to them securing fourth place.

"If they can stay fit I think it will be very important because you have more options," said Benitez, whose side travel to Lisbon today for the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final against Benfica tomorrow.

"When you have two games a week it is important to have different players available so you can change the system and you can keep the tempo. It is really important to have Fernando, Gerrard and Maxi available.

"I can see Fernando is focused and he wants to do well. We are surprised sometimes by what he can do but my idea is that he can improve. He knows how to get better. Two goals and a great performance again against Sunderland is what the team needed.

"Johnson is an attacking defender and sometimes when you have the team playing well at home and everyone is going forward he can be a real threat. He had one or two chances against Sunderland and he was very dangerous down the right side."

Liverpool have the easiest-looking run-in of all the Champions League-chasing sides but they are still four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham having played more matches than their rivals.


Benitez knows Liverpool's fate is currently out of their hands but he expects that to change, especially with Spurs having to play Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in a 10-day spell and City still to face the Gunners, United, Spurs and Aston Villa.

"At this moment we have to concentrate on what we can change now -- to play well on the pitch and try to be as close as possible to the top four and progress in the Europa League and the other things will come," said the Spaniard.

"I think it depends on us. If we keep winning our games -- there are difficult games -- we will be closer and every week will be different. Sunday at Birmingham will be tough but if we can win our games I think they (Tottenham, City and Villa) will lose some points and I think we can be there."

The Liverpool manager has complete belief in the players who struggled earlier this season on the way to 10 Premier League defeats -- eight more than in the previous campaign.

"Always you can have a bad season but you can see from the reaction of the players they are fighting and trying," he said.

"The players are focused and training well and the preparation was similar so it is just trying to get the confidence higher. They knew before the Sunderland victory (that their remaining games would be crucial) but when you are trying to play well and trying to win and cannot, then the confidence is a little bit low. But we didn't change too many things (against Sunderland).

"It was because everyone was doing well and at the end that was positive because it was contagious.

"It is important the players are playing well together and a clean sheet meant everything was positive. We have had some good games in the past but maybe this one, when you put together the first half and part of the second half, it was maybe one of the best performances this season." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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