The knock-out stages of the Champions League are important for all involved. But few clubs are under quite so much pressure to succeed as Liverpool. Mid-way through February, Europe already represents the Reds’ sole hope of lifting silverware this season.
The collapse in the Premier League was disappointing, albeit greeted by most with a feeling of resignation (it seems it always happens nowadays).
But Saturday’s defeat to Championship side Barnsley brought Liverpool’s season crashing to a new low. The South Yorkshire minnows snatched the result of the weekend as they earned a famous 2-1 win at Anfield with a last-gasp strike. Reds supporters were stunned.
True, there have been unwelcome distractions off the pitch, and Benítez did field a weakened team at the weekend. But there can be no excuses: Even Liverpool reserves (but let’s not forget the likes of Carragher, Finnan, Babel and Alonso were playing) should be capable of pummelling a side 29 places below them in the league ladder.
Liverpool are a team whose confidence has hit rock bottom. There appears little stability, fans are not convinced that the manager knows his strongest side and players are failing to perform. Goals in particular appear hard to come by – the Reds squandered a hatful of chances on Saturday and paid the price. There is no time for Liverpool to wallow in self-pity: a similar showing against Italian giants Inter will render their season a total failure.
Rafa Benítez has shown his ability to outwit Europe’s great sides, the Kop has proved it can will the red men onto victory. Two Champions League finals in three years is a phenomenal achievement, with the likes of Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea (twice) all falling foul of the Anfield side.
By contrast, the Reds’ exit against Benfica at this stage of the 2006 competition is often forgotten amongst the hype of Athens and particularly Istanbul. Inter are unquestionably giants, not outsiders, and Liverpool must therefore hope that their reputation for overcoming the heavyweights in Europe yet again rings true.
If domestic failure creates pressure in Europe, one would imagine that Inter enter this Champions League encounter in a state of relaxation. Not so. Roberto Mancini’s side have made Serie A anything but a competition in recent times, this year already enjoying an eleven point lead over second-placed Roma. Saturday’s easy 2-0 win over Livorno means that, 23 games into the season, the Nerazzurri remain unbeaten and have only dropped ten points.
Naturally, they possess both the best attack (48 goals) and the best defence (13 conceded). But history reveals that Inter have traditionally failed to convert domestic success into European honours. They did claim back-to-back European Cup wins – but that was 43 years ago! Not since 1972 have they even reached the final of Europe’s premier club competition.
In these days of multiple Champions League entries from one country, it has been tough viewing for Inter fans as their side have bowed out in the final 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals while domestic rivals have fought it out for Europe’s grand prize. Last season’s bitter defeat to Valencia and Milan’s triumph in Athens were a case in point.
Kings of Italy the Nerazzurri unquestionably are, but can they finally end their European drought? They certainly have the players. Inter possess a phenomenal strength in depth that perhaps only one or two other sides in Europe can match (and none can better).
Mancini has shown rotation can work – players come into the side, know their roles, assimilate quickly and deliver when it matters. In Zlatan Ibrahimović they have one of the best strikers in the world, while the defence is always solid and the midfield both compact without the ball and threatening in possession.
Knock-out football of this calibre does not allow for mistakes, but if Inter can finally replicate their domestic form in Europe there is little reason why they cannot eliminate Liverpool and proceed to win this year’s Champions League.
Liverpool - Barnsley 1 - 2 16/02/2008 FA CUP
Chelsea - Liverpool 0 - 0 10/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Sunderland 3 - 0 02/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
West Ham - Liverpool 1 - 0 30/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Havant & Waterlooville 5 - 2 26/01/2008 FA CUP
Liverpool - Aston Villa 2 - 2 21/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Inter Milan - Livorno 2 - 0 16/02/2008 SERIE A
Catania - Inter Milan 0 - 2 10/02/2008 SERIE A
Inter Milan - Empoli 1 - 0 03/02/2008 SERIE A
Juventus - Inter Milan 2 - 3 30/01/2008 COPPA ITALIA
Udinese - Inter Milan 0 - 0 27/01/2008 SERIE A
Inter Milan - Juventus 2 - 2 23/01/2008 COPPA ITALIA
Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres were all rested at the weekend and will all start on Tuesday. Rafa Benítez will certainly name what he believes is his very strongest side for this encounter, and only has Daniel Agger (foot) and Andriy Voronin (ankle) out injured.
Likely XI (4-4-2): Reina - Finnan, Carragher, Skrtel, Arbeloa - Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Babel - Crouch, Torres
Luis Jimenez is injured and will miss out, while Inter's doctors must check on the progress of Luis Figo. Roberto Mancini rested some players during the Livorno game, so the likes of Materazzi, Ibrahimovic and Cruz should all earn recalls. The coach is unsure what to do about Patrick Vieira, however, and might opt to leave him on the bench as he's lacking match practice. Cesar is suspended.
Likely XI: (4-4-2): Júlio Cesar - Maicon, Cordoba, Materazzi, Maxwell - Zanetti, Cambiasso, Stankovic, Chivu - Ibrahimovic, Cruz
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Liverpool – Fernando Torres
Torres has been at Anfield for less than a season, but he’s already one of the key men in Rafa Benítez’ side. It’s simple: when the striker doesn’t play, Liverpool lack cutting edge up front. The Reds smashed in more goals than any other team in the Champions League group stages, but have struggled to find the net of late. Torres’ pace and accuracy in front of goal are vital if Liverpool are to eradicate the recent profligacy which has cost them dear.
Inter – Julio Cruz
Former Inter manager Roy Hodgson says he’s the key and so do we. The striker has developed from a bit-part player at the Giuseppe Meazza to one of the Nerazzurri’s star men. Cruz has scored 15 goals in 19 games this season and if Liverpool’s defence show the same indecisions as against Barnsley they can expect the veteran Argentine to pounce.