Wednesday, August 13, 2008

CL Preview: Standard Liège - Liverpool

Once again an important Liverpool game is in danger of being overshadowed by an off-field saga. This unfortunately is becoming an all too frequent trend for the Merseyside giants. The latest episode is another apparent conflict between owners and manager, this time over the funding of the proposed Gareth Barry move. The Americans claim that they simply see Barry’s price tag as having escalated beyond what is reasonable and that a deal would no longer represent good business.

They claim they are questioning Villa’s valuation, not Benitez’s judgement, as they have recent spent what may eventually be in excess of £20 million on Robbie Keane.

As usual, such off-field wranglings are distracting the Reds from their more immediate concern: qualifying for the Champions League. Rangers' shock defeat to Lithuanian minnows Kaunas, plus flashbacks of Barnsley in the FA Cup last year will surely have Rafa overpreparing to prevent a footballing and financial disaster.

Benitez has become accustomed to, in his own tongue-in-cheek words, focusing on “coaching and training the players” and not letting behind the scenes drama affect his side adversely. Pre-season has gone well so far, with some pleasing results and performances. Most notably there was a 4-0 thrashing of Rangers and a 1-0 victory over Lazio at Anfield.

A star performer has been Xabi Alonso, who has shown that he wants his football do the talking, despite the ongoing speculation as regards his future. He will be hoping to show fans and manager alike that a collapse of the Barry deal would be no great disaster. Another shining light was Yossi Benayoun, a player who has also been linked with a move away this summer. It will no doubt be encouraging for fans to see such players reacting well and being determined to prove their worth instead of becoming unsettled and allowing transfer speculation to impact on their performance. A less well-known player to emerge from recent fixtures was new signing David Ngog, who has scored twice since his signing from Paris Saint Germain. He will be hoping for a more successful Premier League career than his maligned cousin and former Newcastle United defender, Jean-Alain Boumsong.

Though differing in European stature, both sides are known as 'The Reds' in their home countries. Although relative minnows on the European stage Standard Liege have met Liverpool before, in the Cup Winners' Cup in December 1965. Liverpool won both legs and ran away with a 5-2 aggregate victory. Standard have had considerable domestic success, winning the league nine times and the Belgian cup five times.


Standard Liege

23 July v FC Koln (A) DREW 3-3

24 July v RRC Hamoir (H) WON 5-0

30 July v Valenciennes FC (A) WON 1-0

31 July v FC Seraing (H) WON 9-0

02 August v Saint-Etienne (A) LOST 3-0

09 August v Anderlecht (SuperCup) WON 3-1


08 August v Lazio (H) WON 1-0

05 August v Valerenga (A) WON 4-1

02 August v Rangers (A) WON 4-0

30 July v Villareal (A) DREW 0-0

22 July v Hertha Berlin (A) DREW 0-0

19 July v Wisla Krakow (A) DREW 1-1


Standard Liege

Standard have flown star midfielder, Fellaini, back from the Olympics to ensure they have their strongest possible line-up against last season’s Champions League finalists.


Club captain Steven Gerrard has travelled to Belgium and Liverpool will wait until late to see if he is fit. This is evidence that Liverpool are taking this game seriously, realising they can afford no mishaps. No unnecessary risks will be taken with Gerrard though as, with the opening league game of the season against Sunderland forthcoming at the weekend.

Fabio Aurelio and Martin Skrtel will miss out against Standard but both may possibly be fit for the Sunderland fixture. Benitez said, "They are not ready for this game but hopefully both will be available for the weekend.”


Standard Liege

Zaire striker Dieumerci Mbokani will be a major threat up front, he has been described as the ‘next Didier Drogba’ by the Belgian media. Marouane Fellaini in midfield is also a key player for the club. He is regarded so highly that the club sent a private jet to collect him from Olympic duty for the Liverpool game.


£20 million man Robbie Keane is set to make his competitive debut and will certainly have the most attention. Eyes will also be on Alonso, after a great pre-season, especially if Gerrard misses out. With Javier Mascherano away on Olympic duty, Alonso could be set to be the key player in the centre of the park. If Gerrard does not recover in time, young French midfielder Damien Plessis may get a big chance to impress.

Henry Winter's Pre-Season Predictions

Few teams in Europe can boast a spine as strong as Liverpool's: Pepe Reina and Jamie Carragher defying attackers, Javier Mascherano breaking up opponents' moves in midfield, Steven Gerrard surging forward to liaise with Fernando Torres.

Liverpool will continue to stir respect, if not yet fear in the hearts of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

It is already clear how shrewdly Rafa Benitez has acted in the transfer market. Andrea Dossena should slot in comfortably at left-back while Robbie Keane's recruitment is inspired.

Criticism has been levelled at Liverpool for spending £20m on a 28-year-old in Keane. This is nonsense: 28 is usually deemed a peak for a player. Keane has always looked after himself, has never been short of energetic endeavour on the field and clearly cannot wait to play a competitive match for his childhood love.

Tottenham Hotspur fans were devastated to see Keane leave. He was never moody like Dimitar Berbatov; he just got on with representing the team, creating and scoring goals. Now he has his dream move, leaving tear-stained Spurs fans writing thank you notes.

Recognition of how much Keane is still admired at White Hart Lane, for his service and goals, will doubtless come when Liverpool visit north London this season and the Irishman receives a standing ovation.

Spurs fans will not begrudge Keane the chance to fulfill a childhood dream, pulling on the Liverpool red, and Kopites will doubtless warm to him quickly. Keane has been saying all the right things, about his long-standing love for the club, but it will be when he has the ball at his feet that Anfield will really welcome him.

Benitez has not simply brought a striker, a goalscorer who can lead the line when Torres needs a break. As he showed at Spurs, Keane is hugely versatile. He can work happily alongside a centre-forward like Torres in an orthodox 4-4-2 or push to the flanks in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He can lurk in the hole behind Torres if Benitez wants to play 4-4-1-1 with Gerrard deeper. Such a selfless player, Keane happily links midfield and attack.

What will probably happen is that all strands to Keane's varied game are seen in every match. He will drift wide to lose a marker or create space for Torres, he will dovetail with the Spaniard, he will drop deep and swap passes with Gerrard, inviting the captain through on goal.

Keane possesses those classic, time-honoured Liverpool qualities of work-rate and intelligence, both traits contained in his non-stop and invariably influential movement. His arrival is particularly well-timed because Torres will be even more closely watched than before.

People might argue that this is because Torres' masterpiece of finishing in Vienna won Spain the European Championships. No. Torres was always going to receive extra attention this season because of his outstanding work for Liverpool last term.

Opponents may play deeper against Liverpool, hoping to combat Torres' ability to use his pace and eye for an opening to get behind any defence. If opponents do stretch the pitch this will inevitably open up space in front of their defence for the likes of Gerrard.

His pre-season hampered by a slight thigh injury, Gerrard should prove a huge force this season partly because he enjoyed a rare rest. With England having failed to qualify for Euro 2008, the ambitious midfielder will be even more determined to deliver. As a fan, Gerrard remembers life at Anfield when Liverpool were champions of England and he will be as driven as ever to bring the trophy home.

His great friend, Carragher, should have a high-profile season. The defender's autobiography is due out in the autumn and promises to be typically frank. Honesty has always been Carragher's trademark and his utter commitment to the cause keeps him revered as one of Europe's best centre-halves.

Benitez has used Carragher at right-back, because of the returning Daniel Agger and the excellence of Martin Skrtel, but Carragher deserves to be used in his best position. He remains Liverpool's leading centre-half and should be the rock around which Benitez builds his defence. Never tamper with a successful defence.

Having Agger fit again will be a huge boost for Liverpool and he works well with Carragher which leaves Benitez with a quandary over Skrtel. Having addressed the problem on the left with Dossena's arrival, Benitez still needs a high-class full-back on the other flank.

So Liverpool still need reinforcements if they are to challenge for the Premier League title. Manchester United and Chelsea simply have deeper resources. Yet Benitez, so sharp tactically, is still capable of setting up the team to prosper in Europe. His ability to prepare the side to face Continental opponents remains phenomenal. He has outfoxed some of the greatest minds in European football, and the Spaniard may well do so again.

Now Liverpool Linked With Chelsea's Cole

There is growing speculation in the English media that Chelsea midfielder Joe Cole could move to Liverpool.

England midfielder Joe Cole could soon achieve what another, Gareth Barry, apparently can’t: join Liverpool. At least, that is the latest transfer market rumour.

There were reports yesterday that Aston Villa might make a bid for Cole, but now it seems Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has shown an interest, and given the Reds’ Champions League involvement, it may be a rumour to take more seriously.

It is said that Cole has become unsettled at Stamford Bridge following the Blues’; signing of Deco and the possible arrival of Robinho, and is seeking reassurance from new manager Luiz Felipe Scolari that he figures in the Brazilian’s plans for the new season - especially as his opportunities in pre-season have been decidedly limited.

Cole, 26, is competing with Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Deco, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Florent Malouda, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel for a place in the Chelsea midfield when the Blues kick-off their season at home to Portsmouth on Sunday.

And Scolari's pursuit of Real Madrid’s Robinho is not making Cole feel any more secure, given the two players‘similar roles. Robinho is keen to move to Chelsea and Scolari is clearly keen to snare him: the club had a bid of £19.7 million for the Brazilian rejected last week but are unlikely to be deterred by price, though Madrid don‘t want to sell.

Meanwhile Liverpool manager Benitez is seeking width for his squad, and the apparent impasse over the protracted Barry saga, with Liverpool refusing to match Aston Villa's £18million valuation for the player, could persuade the Reds to move for Cole - though he is likely to cost even more.

Liverpool are also being linked with another young Hungarian in 17-year old defender Otikba Kenneth.

Dortmund Winger In Liverpool Link

Liverpool head coach Rafa Benitez is set to expand on his squad this summer with a raid on Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund.

Polish international Jakub Błaszczykowski, 22, is linked with a move out the Dortmund exit door and into the Anfield limelight.

His versatility may be an attractive proposition for Benitez as the former Wisla man is equally adept at right back, right wing back, or playing on the right wing.

It is reported that Liverpool will fly representatives to Germany this week in order to thrash out a deal involving an expected £8million fee.

Hans-Joachim Watzke, Borussia's managing director, was dismissive about the prospect of losing Błaszczykowski when questioned by Sport1, he said: “We will not be letting him go. Not for €8m, nor for €18m.”

Rafa Coy On Transfer Talk

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is refusing to be drawn on the continuing transfer speculation surrounding the Anfield club as he prepares for tonight’s Champions League qualifying match against Standard Liege.

Speaking ahead of Liverpool’s first leg game, Benitez would not be drawn on the proposed Gareth Barry deal which hit the headlines again this weekend, after Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry declared Villa’s price tag to be too high.

“I am not thinking about signing players at the moment, because they cannot play against Liege tomorrow. I am only concentrating on this game,” said Benitez before adding, “And I have not needed to contact the owners because they cannot help with the preparation for this match. I prefer not to say anything else.”

The Liverpool manager’s relationship with the club’s American owners has been the subject of much friction and debate in recent months, yet Benitez insisted that off the field issues were not affecting his preparation for tomorrow night’s game. He confessed: “I have not been distracted, I have been focusing on this game and getting to the Champions League group stages.”

The Anfield club’s finances have been a source of much speculation in recent weeks with reports suggesting Benitez must sell players before he is able to bring in any new ones. Therefore, failure to qualify for the lucrative Champions League would bring untold financial pressures, however Benitez insisted he was not feeling the strain.

“There is no more pressure than in previous seasons, we all know how important it is to get past this qualifying round,” said the Spaniard before declaring, “Everyone knows how important the Champions League is for us, we must play well.”

Whilst Standard Liege are the current Belgian champions, Liverpool are widely expecting to progress and anything but a win will pile huge pressure on Benitez’s shoulders. However, Benitez doesn’t appear to be taking his opponents lightly, he said: “We know Standard are a good team, especially at home.”

One potential problem for the Reds is the likely absence of captain Steven Gerrard for the match, although the new strike force of Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane is expected to start and Benitez appears confident.

“Every club must be aware of the quality of your opponents,” said Benitez before adding, “You must be really focused for every game, you cannot change things once you have made a mistake.”

Yet despite the constant speculation surrounding the club at the moment, Benitez is clearly focused on the job in hand and knows exactly what he wants from his players. A fact he acknowledged by simply stating: “we must make sure that we do qualify for the next stage.”

Benitez: Torres And Keane Will Terrorise Europe

Rafael Benitez is backing Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane to strike terror into defences across Europe this season – starting in Belgium tonight.

Liverpool begin their campaign this evening against Standard Liege in the first leg of their Champions League third qualifying round tie.

Benitez is hopeful that Steven Gerrard will have shrugged off a thigh problem to lead his team out at the intimate Stade Maurice Dufrasne.

Keane will make his competitive Liverpool debut alongside Torres in attack following his £19m signing from Tottenham Hotspur last month.

And despite having shared only 90 minutes of time on the pitch together, Benitez reckons his new-look strikeforce can forge a partnership to rival anything in Europe.

“I think they could be as good as it gets in the Champions League,” said the Anfield manager. “They are both in the top-class level and can be as good as anyone. If they play together more games then they can get better and better.

“I would prefer them to have played together more, but we couldn’t with both Torres and Keane coming in late. It wasn’t the ideal situation but I think it could be enough.

“But both Torres and Keane are prepared enough to play well. Little by little they can get better. If one of them or both can play well on Wednesday, then that would be fantastic.

“In the time they have had together they have played well and we have been scoring goals. They need time but we have confidence in them and I think we played well in the last game against Lazio.”

Keane and Torres were employed in the 4-2-3-1 formation Benitez favoured last season during the 4-1 win at Valarenga, with the duo then paired up front in a more conventional 4-4-2 against Lazio last Friday.

And Benitez added: “Both formations were good as the team was playing well and scoring goals. In both positions they were playing well, they are clever players and it doesn’t matter what positions they play in.

“Everyone knows these are good players. The only thing is they haven’t been playing together a long time. They will need time.”

Benitez also shrugged off the speculation over his future that has been rekindled by the stalled attempt to sign Gareth Barry from Aston Villa.

“I was really calm last week and really concentrated on the game, we don’t have any big problems,” he said. “I’m being allowed to pick the team without any interference.

“I am not distracted and I am focused on the game.”

Of the Barry saga itself, Benitez added: “If we sign any player he can’t play tomorrow. So I’m not worried about that now, I’m concentrating on this game.”

Benitez intimated he has no qualms in selecting Xabi Alonso, despite the midfielder being ineligible to play for another club in the Champions League this season should he appear tonight.

The Spain international continues to be linked with a move away from Anfield having come close to joining Juventus earlier in the summer.

But Benitez said: “Alonso play… why not? He’s our player, we need him and we’ll use him.”

Rafa Benitez Focused Whatever Standard Of Opposition

On watching his team paired against Liverpool in the Champions League draw, a disbelieving Standard Liege coach László Bölöni admitted to responding with a choice expletive.

Rafael Benitez, though, would be forgiven for muttering a few swear words of his own given the less-than-ideal preparations for tonight’s crucial final qualifying round first leg in Belgium.

From the staggered return to pre-season of his squad, the absence of key players on Olympics duty and the ongoing Gareth Barry saga, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for the meticulous Spaniard. And while the opposition would appear less foreboding than some of the others Liverpool could have been paired with, Benitez is wary of the threat posed by the Belgian champions.

After all, the sight of UEFA Cup finalists Rangers being dumped out the previous round by FBK Kaunas was a sobering reminder of how the estimated £12million windfall of qualification to the group stages of the Champions League is by no means a formality.

Benitez, though, has good form at this round of the competition. In four previous seasons, the Spaniard has successfully guided Liverpool past Grazer AK, CSKA Sofia, Maccabi Haifa and Toulouse, albeit not without a scare or two.

Indeed, Liverpool have never lost a Champions League qualifier and have won nine of 11 previous games against Belgian opposition, including victory in both legs against Standard in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1965.

But Benitez says: “These games are very dangerous, so we will be very focused on the game.

“The first game is really important. We have the advantage of playing the second leg at Anfield, but if we can have a good result in the first game then it will be better for us.

“I don’t think the financial need to qualify for the group stages puts on any added pressure. Every year it has been the same. We have experience of this in the past, and we’ve always got through, so hopefully we can do the same.

“But every club, the top sides especially, must be aware of the quality of the other teams in this competition. You must be focused for every game and you can’t change things if you make a mistake.”

Benitez has been unable to work with his full squad at any point during the summer and only welcomed back the Spanish contingent a fortnight ago following their Euro 2008 exploits.

He adds: “Pre-season has been difficult with the players having come back at different times, but we’re really pleased with the way the young players have come through and showed their quality, the way the senior players and new players have done and the mood is really good.”

While Liverpool have lost Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva and Ryan Babel to Olympic duty in Beijing, Standard Liege have worked a way around the Games.

They were helped by skipper Steven Defour, a 20-year-old midfielder who was awarded the Golden Shoe for the most valuable player in the Belgian League last season, electing not to represent Belgium in China.

Marouane Fellaini, another highly-rated 20-year-old, did make the trip to the Far East. But such is his importance to Standard, the club’s supremo Lucien D’Onofrio sent his private jet to Beijing to collect him specifically for tonight’s match.

Standard ended a 25-year wait to win the league last season, going 31 games unbeaten and losing their only match of the campaign after the championship had already been secured.

“We’ve watched and analysed Standard Liege,” says Benitez. “I haven’t seen too may of their games, but the staff have been watching them and because they have changed the coach we’ll need to see what effect that has.

“They are a good team, and we know they are especially tough when they are playing at home. They are very strong in defence, and don’t concede a lot of goals.

“They might not be used to the Champions League, but they only lost one league game last season and showed their quality.

“Whenever you play away from home in Europe, it’s always difficult.

“We have confidence in our players but when you play against a good team in Europe you need to be careful. We know they lost to St Etienne recently in a friendly but they beat Anderlecht in the (Belgian) Super Cup.”

Standard have had some problems. Dieumerci Mbokani, their Congolese striker, only returned to Belgium on Monday after visiting Africa because of a family bereavement, while Milan Jovanovic, their top scorer from last year and the Belgian footballer of the year, is a target for PSV Eindhoven and may not appear tonight.

Standard’s 29,200-capacity Stade Maurice Dufrasne, known locally as the “Chaudron de Sclessin”, is renowned in Belgium for its intense atmosphere.

And one Liverpool player hopeful of getting a run-out this evening is Andriy Voronin.

The Ukrainian marked his first competitive appearance for the Anfield side last season with a goal in the Champions League qualifier in Toulouse, but went on to endure a disappointing campaign.

Voronin has subsequently been linked with a departure, particularly after the arrival of Robbie Keane. But, after scoring three times in pre-season including the winner against Lazio on Friday, the 29-year-old is vowing to fight for his place.

“I have had a great pre-season run and am the fittest I have ever been,” says Voronin.

“I am really looking forward to this season and know I can do a job for the team.

“It’s not going to be easy for me but I am up for the fight and am working very hard.

“My English has improved and I have settled well in Liverpool. Now I need the chance to prove my quality.”

Kuyt: I'm Really Happy At Anfield

Striker Dirk Kuyt has reiterated how happy he is at Liverpool.

Rafael Benitez was quick to play down media speculation last week linking the player with a move elsewhere - words which came as music to the Dutch international's ears.

"I'm really happy at Liverpool and I want to stay here for as long as the club wants me," Kuyt told

"I am really settled here and I like the city. The most important thing is I like the club and I've really enjoyed the two seasons I've been here. The only thing I am missing is some trophies and hopefully that will come in the next year.

"I've never had any intentions of leaving this club. Sometimes things are said in the press but the boss said to me that is not relevant and he wants me here with Liverpool."

The Reds number 18 is now focusing on tonight's Champions League qualifier with Standard Liege, and while the team have been in good form during pre-season, Kuyt insists the hard work starts now against tricky Belgian opposition.

"The team has been working really hard and the new players have adapted well," said the 28-year-old.

"The last three games we have had some good results against Rangers, Valerenga and Lazio, but let's see where we are after this week. If we start well on Wednesday and then against Sunderland in the Premier League on Saturday, then we will have had a good pre-season.

"We know that we are a good team. We have a lot of confidence and we've just got to show that in the first games of the season.

"I know a bit about Liege. Belgium is close to Holland and I know their league. Maybe it isn't as good as a couple of years ago but they are still a good team with a few talented young players.

"It will definitely be tough for us and hopefully we can get a good result. I think it's really important to have the second game at home. Every team in Europe is difficult to beat but it's good for us because the distance is not too far. Hopefully we can get the result we want and get through to the Champions League.

"This is a really important game for us so early in the season because we know if we were to lose we would be out of the Champions League. That's not what we want because we have had some really good results in that competition over the past few years."

Kuyt has also spoken about his role on the right-hand side of midfield, claiming he would play anywhere for the good of the team.

"I have always played as a striker in my career but in the national team I have played on the right," he added.

"I played there during Euro 2008 for Holland. I'm not really a right winger but I can play it my own way and I like it so far. The last 15 games of last season went really well. We were playing well as a team and I was scoring goals and giving assists.

"As long as I can be important for the team I'm happy to play on the right side. For me the most important thing is winning games and picking up trophies. That is more important to me than being a striker and scoring goals.

"I don't care if I play as a striker, a second striker or a right winger. I just want to play as many games as I can and be important for the team."

Kuyt also welcomed the summer acquisition of Robbie Keane.

"Robbie has so many qualities," he said. "Everyone knows him because he has played at a really good level for many years in the Premier League.

"With the signing of Robbie and the other new players hopefully we can make another good step forward.

"This is going to be my third season with Liverpool and every year the club brings in a new striker. That's Liverpool because the club always wants to progress and always wants to be better. It's a good thing because you have to perform better as well."

Rafael Benitez Still Wants Gareth Barry

Rafael Benítez has declared himself “calm” as Liverpool prepare to start their season this evening with their summer-long pursuit of Gareth Barry still up in the air, but the suspicion remains that this calm could be the prelude to another storm.

Despite his board’s decision to veto an £18 million deal, Benítez is determined to proceed with a deal to sign Barry from Aston Villa and he will urge the club’s American owners to back his judgment once the small matter of tonight’s Champions League qualifying match in Belgium is out of the way.

Benítez refused to be drawn on Barry at last night’s press conference in advance of this evening’s first leg against Standard Liège, the champions of Belgium, saying only that he was “calm” and that he was “concentrating on the game”. But he is known to be unhappy at the refusal of Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., the owners, to sanction the signing of Barry and will urge them and Rick Parry, the chief executive, to support him by making a restructured bid, aware that the England midfield player may choose to commit his future to Villa if no deal is reached by the weekend.

The proposed signing of Barry has provoked a mixed reaction among Liverpool’s supporters, many of whom were aggrieved by the prospect of selling Xabi Alonso to make way for the Villa player, but Benítez indicated last night that Alonso will play against Standard, which, given that it would render him ineligible to play for any other team in the Champions League, would affect his market value. Benítez appears to have come round to the idea of a squad that would accommodate the vision and artistry of Alonso in addition to the contrasting qualities of Barry, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva.

With Mascherano and Lucas representing Argentina and Brazil respectively at the Olympic Games in Beijing, Benítez was relieved that Gerrard was able to train fully at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne last night. Damien Plessis, the French midfield player, had been on standby to replace Gerrard in a starting line-up that is likely to include two summer signings, Andrea Dossena and Robbie Keane. Despite the absence of another new addition, Philipp Degen, there was no place in the squad for Steve Finnan, who has not travelled with the squad after a fallout with Benítez and is likely to be on his way out of Anfield.

Keane is expected to play just behind, rather than alongside, Fernando Torres in attack on his competitive debut for Liverpool, but Benítez believes that the players can form a strike partnership that will be equal to any in the Champions League this season. “I think so,” the manager said. “The two strikers are top-class and on the same level as anyone. If they play together a lot, I think they can form a really good understanding and then they can go on and get better and better.”

Rafael Benitez Considers Xabi Alonso For Champions League Game With Standard Liege

From Euro 2008 to Wimbledon and the Tour de France, this has been the summer of the Spaniard and here, in a stadium situated between a steelworks and grassed-over slag heaps, Rafael Benitez launched his own quest for glory.

The Champions League is his banker; the tournament that has earned the manager his place in the Liverpool pantheon. Without the two finals and a semi-final, his finishing positions of fifth, third, third and fourth in the Premier League would not have guaranteed his survival.

Liverpool have had to pre-qualify for the Champions League each time and they set out in Liege, a kind of Belgian Sheffield, in a stadium with a hint of Bramall Lane.

There are those who believe that Benitez's fractured relationship with the club's co-owner, Tom Hicks – this time over the inability to fund Gareth Barry's transfer from Aston Villa – means he is unlikely to make it to the Olympic Stadium in Rome, venue for the final and where Liverpool have won two European Cups.

While acknowledging he has the strongest squad in his four years at Anfield, he would not be drawn on his relationship with Hicks. "I'm not thinking about signing players at the moment, because they cannot play against Standard Liege," said Benitez. "I'm only concentrating on this game. And I have not needed to contact the owners because they cannot help with the preparation for this. I prefer not to say anything else."

He suggested he might start Xabi Alonso. Since it was the failure to sell him to Juventus that meant they were unable to meet Aston Villa's asking price for Barry, that would be a significant decision. Were Benitez to try to sell the Basque now or in January, he would be cup-tied for the Champions League and his value reduced. Steve Finnan, another whose future is uncertain, did not even travel with the squad.

Steven Gerrard has been passed fit, with Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane poised to start their first competitive match together.

Team details (probable)

Standard Liege (4-4-2): Espinosa; Marcos, Sarr, Fellaini, Dante; Witsel, Defour, Toama, Dalmat; De Marmargo, Mbokani.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Dossena; Kuyt, Alonso, Gerrard, Benayoun; Keane, Torres.