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Liverpool must revive spirit of Istanbul

Liverpool have often talked about calling on the Spirit of Istanbul, that elixir that drove them to break AC Milan's stranglehold and hearts in the 2005 Champions League final here. Now Liverpool need to show the Spirit of Istanbul in another stadium by the Bosphorus. Their season will be shaped by how they fare against Besiktas tonight.

With the home fires hardly burning brightly in the Premier League, once again Europe offers Liverpool a passport to paradise. Having drawn with Porto and lost to Marseille in Group A of the Champions League, Rafa Benitez's side really need to win in the Inonu Stadium. "We have to be in the knockout stages," stressed Benitez on arrival here yesterday. "I am really pleased to be in Istanbul. I have very good memories."

Rafael Benitez
Rallying cry: Rafael Benitez spells out the need for Liverpool to return from Istanbul with a victory

On that amazing night two years ago, Liverpool made countless precious deposits in the memory bank. Benitez leaving the dressing-room door open at half-time so his drained players could hear the fans singing You'll Never Walk Alone. Steven Gerrard leading the fight-back from three goals down. Jamie Carragher battling cramp. Jerzy Dudek's shoot-out homage to old spaghetti legs, Bruce Grobbelaar.

Images and events that will never be forgotten. Benitez, ever the perfectionist, quizzing his jubilant players at the post-match banquet about their marking in the first half. Vladimir Smicer and Milan Baros heading off to Taksim Square to party with the fans. Gerrard waking up with the European Cup at the foot of his bed. The tears of a proud chairman, David Moores.

Liverpool will always have Istanbul (and a few official banners from the Ataturk Stadium did make their very unofficial way back to Merseyside). They must display such grit again in Europe because the Premier League's Old Firm, Manchester United and Arsenal, are back in duelling business at the top of the table; the pair even offer the most attractive football in the land (with a respectful nod to Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth).

Benitez mentioned Anfield's heightened expectations under him. "When I arrived here, they said it was difficult to finish in the top four and qualify for the group stages every year, but in the last three years we have always been there. Now people think we must do it always.


"As soon as the draw was made, people said we were in an easy group and I said we weren't. I knew Porto and Marseille would be difficult, and Besiktas could be. This is a difficult game."

As Benitez and his players strolled into the ground for training last night, the Inonu was full of peace and quiet. In the secretary's office, a ginger cat curled up in a chair, fast asleep. Although lacking the intensity of the Ali Sami Yen, where Galatasaray officials parade a lion on the pitch before kick-off, the Inonu will reverberate tonight.

Besiktas fans had already been in during the day, hanging banners proclaiming "The God of Another Mood" and "132 Decibels" close to where Liverpool fans will stand. Such words will hardly intimidate the travelling support; of more concern was the sight of extensive netting covering the away section. Beware missiles.

Benitez knows the Inonu well, having guided Valencia to victory here en route to Uefa Cup glory in 2004, although the Spaniards endured a torrid night with Turkish fans at their belligerent worst. "I am sure the crowd will be good," smiled Benitez.

Riot police will be out in force, as usual with football matches in these parts, but a heightened tension grips Turkey that cannot be escaped by even the most unworldly-wise visitor. Benitez was even asked his views on Turkey's escalating dispute with Kurdish rebels on the border with Iraq.

"The situation is really difficult," responded Benitez. "We just try to be focused on sport." Some events in Istanbul are being cancelled, notably Beyonce's planned concert tonight to celebrate Fenerbahce's 100th anniversary.

The master of detail, Benitez was applying the little grey cells to the best means of dealing with Besiktas. They have yet to score or take a point in Group A but deserve respect at home.

Fireworks are expected. Besiktas players have received a "code of ethics" from the Turkish federation, urging them "to show respect for opponents, referees, team-mates, officials and fans" and "to oppose cheating, intimidation, feigning fouls or injury".

Despatched to all clubs in Turkey, the missive encourages teams "to play by the fair play guidelines, accept defeat with dignity, be aware of the consequences of emotive language and negative behaviour, and promote football which is passionate, skilful, safe and honest". Liverpool's defence will certainly be careful of Besiktas attack, the all-Brazilian combination of Bobo and Marcio Nobre. Jamie Carragher and particularly Sami Hyypia will need the protection of Javier Mascherano in front of them. Mascherano may be partnered by Xabi Alonso, now fit following metatarsal trouble, with Gerrard breaking forward in support of Dirk Kuyt. Ryan Babel and Jermaine Pennant are expected to provide the width while restraining Besiktas' attacking full-backs.

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