Benitez taking no risks as Champions League riches hinge on Liège
Standard Liege have never been one of European football's feted clubs. The Jupiler League champions remain as anonymous as when they met Leeds United in the European Cup in 1970. "Where's this place Standard?" a Leeds director is said to have asked, presumably assuming Liège translated as "United" or "Rovers".
Tonight, however, Royal Standard de Liège have the chance to make an impact across the Continent by knocking Liverpool, the five-times European Cup winners, out of the Champions League. The repercussions of such a shock could be significant, both in the domestic transfer market and the Liverpool boardroom.
"It would be unthinkable for us not to be in the Champions League," said defender Jamie Carragher. Goalkeeper Pepe Reina added: "It would be a disaster not to get through, but nobody in the squad is thinking about anything other than qualifying."
The nightmare should be avoided. A very rusty Liverpool were appalling in the Stade Maurice Dufrasne a fortnight ago, but still escaped with a goalless draw. With more game time, and the Kop's wall of sound behind them, Liverpool ought to sweep away László Bölöni's young side.
And yet there will be a nervousness at kick-off at Anfield tonight, on the Kop, in the dug-out, and in the directors' box. Liverpool may have beaten Sunderland and Middlesbrough since returning from Belgium but they have not played well. If they concede one goal Liverpool will have to score two and only Reina's penalty save, and a linesman contentiously deciding Marouane Fellaini's header did not cross the line, ensured Liverpool kept a clean sheet in the first leg.
"I am not even considering the option of Liverpool not qualifying [for the group stages], I am just thinking about winning," said Rafael Benitez yesterday.
The Liverpool manager added: "My concern now is to improve how we play. We can play better. I am confident we will play much, much better. Liège were good in the first leg but we were really poor. If we improve and play at our real level it will be very difficult for them."
The consequences of failure are huge. Liverpool, twice finalists in the past three years, can expect to make £12m-£20m from the Champions League. Defeat would send them into the Uefa Cup, a paupers' competition by comparison.
Benitez claimed defeat would not affect his transfer plans but admitted: "I am aware of the financial implications, money is always important in football."
Should Liverpool fail, the pursuit of Gareth Barry would halt immediately as might that of Albert Riera, the Espanyol midfielder. Riera, a tricky winger who had a loan period at Manchester City, is close to agreeing an £8m move despite Everton offering Espanyol more cash.
Failure could also accelerate Benitez's clear-out with Xavi Alonso, Sami Hyypia, Jermaine Pennant and Steve Finnan all linked with moves away from Anfield. It would also considerably weaken Benitez's own position in the on-going power struggle at Anfield.
Benitez will be aware that Everton fell at this stage to Villarreal three seasons ago. Two years prior Newcastle went out to Partizan Belgrade in a penalty shoot-out prompting the gag: Go to Tyneside for a free drink, Aaron Hughes has just put £10m over the bar.
Liège are in form having opened their title defence with successive wins scoring six goals and conceding one. They may include striker Milan Jovanovic, the reigning Belgium player of the year. The Serb was omitted from the first leg as a transfer to Marseilles appeared imminent but it is yet to go through. Playing him will reduce his market value, but that loss has to be weighed against the riches that would ensue should Jovanovic spur Liège into the group stages. Dieumerci Mbokani, who caused Liverpool problems in the first game, will start having scored four goals in his past two games.
Liverpool are without Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva, who are still recovering from the Olympics. Benitez is likely to retain the XI that began Saturday's match against Middlesbrough. That means another start for Steven Gerrard despite fears that his groin injury is not fully healed.
Tonight's probable Anfield teams
Standard Liege (4-4-2):
Rorys Aragon Espinoza
Dante Bonfim Costa