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Why Rafa Benitez is so desperate to strike early

Why Rafa Benitez is so desperate to strike early

Aug 10 2007

by Chris Bascombe, Liverpool Echo

Rafa Benitez

PINPOINTING where last year’s Premiership campaign started to go wrong for Liverpool isn’t difficult. The first day of the season.

A turgid 1-1 draw against a miserable Sheffield United team at Bramall Lane set the tone, and in the weeks which followed Rafa Benitez’s side struggled for momentum.

Neil Warnock’s recent outburst about weakened teams costing his club relegation neglected to mention the side Benitez picked a year ago, when a forthcoming Champions League tie was uppermost in his thoughts.

Xabi Alonso and Dirk Kuyt didn’t travel to Sheffield, while five of the key men that day – Kromkamp, Fowler, Zenden, Bellamy and Gonzalez – are no longer at the club.

Martin O’Neill will be grateful if Benitez is equally generous to summon his fringe players at Villa Park tomorrow, but clearly there is a shift in emphasis heading into this opening weekend.

Benitez insists the imminent Champions League qualifier won’t impact on his team selection.

Next week’s trip to Toulouse is less arduous than that to Kiev a year ago, and the tie in France is now scheduled to kick-off at 3.30pm, giving the players’ plenty of recovery time.

Benitez looked back to the early season difficulties of 2006 and vowed to make changes to ensure Liverpool hit the ground running, recognising his teams have paid a price for their slow starts.

“The early fixtures last season were very difficult for us,” said Benitez. “We played Bolton, Everton, Chelsea and Manchester United. I don’t know who prepared our schedule, but it was not easy.

“I also remember problems with the qualifying game last season and a long trip to Kiev. Toulouse could be a difficult team to play, but it’s true the situation is not the same as last season.

“Playing the first game next Wednesday gives us plenty of time to prepare for the European game, and it seems this year the situation is much better for us.

“We all know we have to do our job well, but the circumstances are more helpful for us.

“It’s been a different type of pre-season travelling to many countries. That’s been difficult, but we’ve controlled the situation okay and the players are ready.

“Being away has helped the spirit in the squad.”

On the surface, this year’s opening fixture list appears less demanding, but pivotal games still seem to arrive earlier every season.

The annual money-spinner in the European qualifier consistently leaves Liverpool behind in Premiership fixtures, and with Chelsea the first opponents at Anfield, the prospect of playing catch-up after the second weekend isn’t inconceivable.

If starting quicker is a priority, improving away form is no less important.

The timing of Benitez’s first pre-match Premier League press conference of the season was, in itself, a reflection of the ‘small details’ which have been re-assessed during the summer to help Liverpool on the road.


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