Posted on August 28, 2008
The Anfield boss accepts that although his side are still unbeaten after four games this term – and have only conceded one goal – they have not been firing on all cylinders.
That was underlined by the Champions League qualifying tie with Standard Liege. Liverpool should have lost the first leg in Belgium, and laboured to a 1-0 extra-time win yesterday to secure their passage into the group phase for the fifth season in succession under Benitez.
Benitez knows Liverpool were close to elimination during both legs of the tie, a situation that would have instantly created a severe cash crisis at Anfield.
With them facing interest payments of £30million a year on debt loaded onto the club by owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool’s ability to find that outlay would have been severely jeopardised by European failure.
Now Benitez has to ensure they get past the group stage and secure passage to a UEFA cash pot that should bring them between £20million and £30million, depending on how far they go in the competition.
Two finals and a semi-final in the previous four seasons have seen the club rewarded by more than £100million by UEFA.
Benitez believes the teething problems of Liverpool’s season so far will be ironed out by the opening group match on September 16/17.
Benitez says: “We will get better little by little, by the time the group games come around, we will be ready.
“It is not easy when you have the pre-season we have had. When sometimes you are missing 10 players for a variety of reasons, internationals or the Olympics.
“Then you have two or three players returning one week, then the next week there are more. (Fernando) Torres, (Alvaro) Arbeloa, (Jose) Reina and (Xabi) Alonso all returned late for training because of Euro 2008. Then there were three returning from the Olympics; (Ryan) Babel first, then Lucas, then (Javier) Mascherano.
“But now we have seen Mascherano win the gold medal and Liverpool have reached the Champions League group stage. So it has all been very positive in the end.
“Now we have the players back and the confidence that we need to be successful this season.”
He added: “We will continue to improve, we will be completely ready as a team when the group stages start.
“Up until now we have been preparing for every game missing four or five players each time.
“Now, after a few players have returned, we will improve with each match. Little by little we will improve to be ready for the big matches that will come.”
Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry has been in Barcelona for the past two days completing the deal that will bring Espanyol’s winger Albert Riera to the club for a fee of around £9million.
Benitez says: “We are working to try to improve the squad. It is not easy to bring in too many players at this stage with the window coming to an end. Maybe just the one will be all we can manage.
“We have been working and trying to improve the squad, without thinking of the money from the Champions League.
“We can progress if we have options, but now with this money maybe it will be easier.
“For us it is important to be playing for trophies, but of course the money is important. But if you can win games like this it gives you the opportunity for more money, we understand that.”
Benitez will hope to have skipper Steven Gerrard back for the opening group game, the midfielder having had a minor groin operation today that will rule him out for 10-15 days.
Gerrard was just relieved to have got past Liege. He said: “It was a very tough game and you have to give them credit.
“They have made it difficult for us over two legs but we have managed to scrape through. When times are hard it is about sticking together, showing character and trying to grind wins out and that is what we are managing to do.”
Match-winner Dirk Kuyt agrees. He said: “The most important thing is that we are through. We did not give our best performance but kept working really hard until the end and I am really happy with another goal in Europe.
“We wanted to play in the Champions League because we know how good it can be. We have been in a final and a semi-final over recent years and we want more.
“First we had to win the qualifier and it was a tough game. We believed in ourselves and even though it was not our best performance, we always know we have the quality to score.”
Goalkeeper Reina summed up the mood in the camp, saying: “We need to improve. Obviously we are not playing at our best but so long as we play ugly and keep winning, I don’t mind.”