Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes Sunday’s showdown with arch rivals Manchester United provides the perfect opportunity to stop his club’s season spiralling out of control.
Benitez’s team head into English football’s premier grudge match at Anfield amid their worst run of form for 22 years after four successive defeats.
After beginning the campaign with high hopes of ending their 20-year wait to win the league, the Reds are already seven points adrift of leaders United and face the unpalatable prospect of having their title challenge effectively ended by their most despised opponents.
The woeful run has left Benitez fighting a rearguard action to convince increasingly sceptical fans and pundits that he is still the right man to bring the title back to Anfield.
A planned pre-match fans’ protest against George Gillett and Tom Hicks, Liverpool’s American owners, adds to the growing sense of a club in danger of imploding.
Yet if Benitez harboured any fears about the consequences of losing to United, he did a good job of hiding them as the Spaniard launched a passionate defence of his position in his pre-match press conference.
“I am really relaxed in terms of my position because I know how we are working on the pitch every day. In the past we were doing really good things and we haven’t changed too much,” Benitez said.
“It’s a question of confidence. We know we have to improve but it’s about winning the first game now.
“As a manager you know you will have good moments and bad moments. At this moment we know we have to improve, we have to win and it’s a question of time. I’m sure once we win the first game everything will change.
“This game against United could be the right opportunity for us because it’s a massive game against our rivals and the fans will be behind the team from the first minute until the last. We can change everything.”
Benitez’s cause isn’t helped by groin injuries to Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson that could sideline all three stars on Sunday.
Torres is the most likely to feature but even if the Spain striker misses out, Benitez points to last season’s 2-1 win over United at Anfield — a result achieved without Gerrard and Torres — as proof that Liverpool have nothing to fear.
“Beating United last season is something positive we can use,” he said. “Without Gerrard and Torres, the team was really good.”
United have their own injury concerns as England forward Wayne Rooney, suffering with a calf injury, may not recover in time to play.
If Rooney misses out then Michael Owen should make the United starting line-up, with the former Liverpool striker likely to receive a hostile reception from the Kop.
That kind of enmity is typical of a fixture that been marred by unsavoury scenes on and off the field for years, but it is the game that United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has relished most since he made it his aim “to knock Liverpool off their perch” when he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986.
“Manchester United and Liverpool games, as I have said many times, are without question massive games. That will never change,” he said.
“In my first derby game with them I got a complete sense of the history of both teams and it hasn’t changed. It is still a massive game.
“It is ‘the’ game as far as I am concerned, that won’t change.”
However, Ferguson’s side are just one point ahead of second-placed Chelsea and could be off top spot by the time they kick off at Anfield.
So keeping United in pole position, rather than adding to Liverpool’s woes, will be Ferguson’s motivation on Sunday.
“I’m not interested in Liverpool. I’m only concerned about what we do on Sunday,” Ferguson added.
“I don’t see that we have a point to prove. Different games are shaped by circumstances of games.
“You can’t look at last season as a barometer of our form or Liverpool’s form. Derby games are derby games and anyone can win it.”
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