Sunday, March 22, 2009
Liverpool determined to sustain the high
Liverpool head into their match with Aston Villa desperate to avoid another feeling of anti-climax at Anfield.
The Reds know that they will have to win almost all of their remaining nine games in the Premier League to stand a chance of overhauling the leaders Manchester United.
But Rafael Benitez's team will be mindful that the last time they returned to a more modest league encounter, they suffered a major jolt.
Following the high of a 1-0 win over Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, their Premier League hopes suffered a major blow with a 2-0 loss against Middlesbrough.
While Villa are a more dangerous proposition than Gareth Southgate's team, Liverpool accept that this will be seen as another test of their staying power.
Liverpool's title push has often foundered at home, where they have regularly been stifled.
They remain unbeaten in the league at Anfield but have been held to draws in six of their 14 home games.
The 12 points they have dropped - against Stoke, Fulham, West Ham, Hull, Everton and Manchester City - are likely to prove costly come the end the season.
And Benitez, who is sure for a warm reception at Anfield after signing a new five-year contract, knows that his team can not afford any more slip ups if they are to maintain the pressure on Sir Alex Ferguson's men.
He said: "This week has been really good for us. To beat United away and score four goals is massive. But we cannot say anything if we don't go on to beat Aston Villa.
"If we want to be contenders and stay in the title race, clearly it depends on United. But we also have to win our games, starting with three points against Villa.
"The players know we have to win our games and try to be as close as possible to United. We can be talking and talking but all this doesn't matter unless we win.
"I'll think about Villa and see what the position is in a week. To win the title you always have to be almost perfect, and when you are four points behind and they have a game in hand, clearly you have to win almost every game."
The Spaniard has a full squad, apart from long-term absentee Philipp Degen to select from and although all the attention will be on whether the Reds can stay in touch with United, Villa are also coming under pressure.
Having spent much of the campaign pushing for a top four place, they have slipped out of the Champions League places with a miserable run that has seen them fail to win in seven matches in all competitions.
Although Benitez is assured of plenty of cheers from the Reds supporters, the reception given to Gareth Barry, who came close to moving to Anfield last summer, is likely to be far cooler.
Martin O'Neill knows all about how to come away from Anfield with a share of the spoils after picking up a 2-2 draw at Liverpool last season.
He is calling on a repeat of that performance to pull Villa out of their tail-spin and is sure that he can bring the Reds back down to earth.
He said: "They've had a fantastic victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford, they've beaten Real Madrid, so at this moment their form and results have been terrific.
"But last year we went up there, we fought back from a goal behind to get ourselves in front and conceded a late goal.
"What we have to do is keep hold of that self-belief and the players have got to try and remain as strong as possible. They are certainly capable of doing it."