Benitez seeks creative spark for Turkish test
The road to Istanbul will always hold special memories for Liverpool fans but Rafael Benitez has seen another side of the city, at the Inonu stadium, where his side dare not even contemplate the consequences of defeat when they face Besiktas tonight.
Benitez was pelted with bottles and cans at the stadium and rode a tide of abuse when he arrived with a Valencia side that won 2-0 en route to winning the Uefa Cup three years ago and, though he is not expecting the same hostility tonight, he has plenty of grounds for anxiety after a dismal Champions League start in which his side have collected one point and a solitary goal in two games.
Benitez did not quite go so far as to say that defeat would condemn his club to the Uefa Cup before heading to Turkey yesterday, but he was not far off it. "We can't lose," he said. "It depends on the other game [between the group's leading two, Porto and Marseilles] but you know that one point after three games will be very difficult." Even a draw would probably compel Liverpool to win their three remaining games, the last of which is in Marseilles.
Liverpool are undoubtedly favourites against a Turkish side who have mustered only one goal, and not a single win, from five previous home games against English opposition. But Besiktas demonstrated with some stout resistance against Porto, who took 92 minutes to prise a winner three weeks ago, that they can frustrate sides and Benitez's hope that Fernando Torres might be available to exploit the space provided by the home side's attack-minded full-backs have been dashed. After the Liverpool manager consulted doctors about his striker early yesterday, the Spaniard was left behind on Merseyside, which means he may well bank on Peter Crouch to continue his impressive Champions League record, alongside Dirk Kuyt up front.
But creativity has been as much of a problem as finishing for Liverpool and the continued absence of Daniel Agger may mean Javier Mascherano operating as a defensive midfielder to protect Sami Hyypia – hardly the most creative option at Benitez's disposal. With Xabi Alonso's return also still uncertain last night, Benitez will, as ever, look to Steven Gerrard as the side's fulcrum and hope their difference of opinion over the midfielder's substitution on Saturday can be put in the past.
Benitez stood by his initial decision yesterday. "Would I do it again? Yes, if it helped the team," he said. "If I need to use him I will do and I need to replace him it's because I'm thinking of what's best for the team." Fortunately, Gerrard has never needed much encouragement to give his all in games in Turkey.
Besitkas, for whom former West Ham loan player Edouard Cissé should play, have never made it beyond the second round of the Champions League but resistance is ingrained in the club, which grew out of a gymnastics club created in the days of an Ottoman sultan who banned all sporting activities. Benitez knows that the Black Eagles, as the home side are known, are somewhat disorganised but prone to surprising opponents. A goal to settle nerves will be hugely welcome. Benitez says the inevitable desires of the club's new owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, to cash in on a European run will be put out of his mind, but that cannot help.
"People think we will always qualify [for the second stage] and as soon as the draw was made people said: 'Oh, easy,'" said Benitez. "It's never easy."
Besiktas (possible, 4-5-1): Arikan; Kurtulus, Zan, Toraman, Delgado; Tello, Cissé, Ozkan, Tandogan, Akin; Bobo.
Liverpool (possible, 4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Rise; Babel, Gerrard, Mascherano, Pennant; Crouch, Kuyt.
Results: Marseilles 2 Besiktas 0; Porto 1 Liverpool 1; Besiktas 0 Porto 1; Liverpool 0 Marseilles 1.
Tonight: Besiktas v Liverpool; Marseilles v Porto. 6 November: Liverpool v Besiktas; Porto v Marseilles. 28 November: Besiktas v Marseilles; Liverpool v Porto. 11 December: Marseilles v Liverpool; Porto v Besiktas.