Rafael Benitez has warned Liverpool not to underestimate Manchester City today as his side start a crucial period that will define their season.
With Manchester United to entertain Blackburn yesterday, the second-placed Reds could trail Sir Alex Ferguson’s men by eight points by the time they kick off against City at Anfield.
Only a win will do for Benitez’s team this weekend. But, although Liverpool have lost just once in the Premier League this season, they have been held to draws at home by Stoke, Fulham, West Ham, Hull and Everton.
City have had a miserable time away from Eastlands, with the 3-0 win at Sunderland in August their only success in 12 league matches on their travels.
But Benitez is refusing to read anything into City’s record and feels a trip to Anfield will bring the best out of Mark Hughes’ big name players.
“You can analyze how teams perform away all season, but it’s different at Anfield,” he said.
“The players want to show they are good enough and playing at Anfield is a chance for them to do that,” he said. “You have to forget the statistics and concentrate on the good players they have.”
Hughes, whose team lost 2-0 at Portsmouth last weekend, has noted the success visiting teams have had at Liverpool this season and hopes to see a new solidity in his team.
The City manager feels his attacking players can exploit the Reds’ desperate need for a victory.
“They will have to come out and try to win the game, so hopefully that will leave spaces in behind that we can exploit,” he said.
“They have been frustrated by other teams at Anfield. We have to make sure we have a platform to win the game ourselves. We need to be nice and solid, but be a bit better at set-plays as well as seeing games out to the end, because we have the goals in us,” Hughes said.
The City clash marks the start of a crucial period of four games in 10 days for the Reds. Benitez’s side travel to the Bernabeu for the first leg of their last 16 Champions League clash with Real Madrid on Wednesday and face games against Middlesbrough and Sunderland before the second leg against the Spanish giants.
Liverpool then have a trip to play United and Benitez knows that the Reds must take maximum points in their next three Premier League matches in order to stay in touch with the league leaders ahead of their trip to Old Trafford on March 14.
And Benitez, who has ruled Steven Gerrard out of the City game due to his ongoing hamstring problem, admits that Liverpool will know their chances of silverware at the end of that spell of games.
“We have four games in 12 days including Madrid, so you never know what will happen. Maybe in 10-15 days we’ll have a clearer idea,” he said.
Despite being without Gerrard for the game at Anfield, Benitez is optimistic that his captain will return to action in Spain next week.
“Steven will not be ready for this game. We don’t know if he’ll be back for the game in midweek but clearly he will not be involved against City,” Benitez said. “He has confidence he will be back for Madrid, but we will decide on Monday. He is improving but we cannot take any risks, so he won’t be in the squad this weekend.”
Hughes feels Benitez’s decision to rotate less this season been the reason they have finally mounted a sustained challenge for the title.
“Liverpool have made a better fist of it, and maybe that has come with less squad rotation,” he said. “They have been criticized for changing the team in the past, but this year they haven’t, and as a consequence they are having a better challenge.”