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Benitez returns 'home' for crucial away game

ESPN staff
April 19, 2013
Rafael Benitez - and Fernando Torres - head back to Anfield on Sunday © PA Photos
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Rafael Benitez admits he will be emotional when he returns to Anfield for the first time as a visiting manager with Chelsea on Sunday.

Benitez spent six years in charge of Liverpool, between 2004 and 2010, winning the Champions League at the end of his first season, and his main family home is still in Wirral.

The return comes for what will be the club's first game since Monday's memorial service to mark the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Benitez made a £96,000 donation to the Hillsborough Family Support Group when he left Anfield three years ago, and his wife Montse remains involved in regular charity work to help the families of the tragedy's victims.

He told Spanish paper Marca earlier this month that he wants to return to manage the Merseysiders one day, but insists his focus on Sunday will be a Chelsea victory.

Benitez told the Daily Mail: "I will try to do the best for my team and that is Chelsea. I am a professional and that is what I have to do. I cannot forget the time I spent there and the feeling, the atmosphere, the success, the link with the fans and the city - it is my home - but I will try to win. That is what I have to do.

"This will be quite emotional but I have to concentrate. It will not be easy when you see so many friends around but I will try to concentrate on the game. The players have to believe I can manage the situation and give them help if they need it. Normally, I am not too emotional but now I'm getting older it happens sometimes."

Benitez is set to leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the season, having been named interim manager in November following the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo. His appointment was an unpopular one among Chelsea fans, mindful of his previous criticisms of the club - stoked by a rivalry that saw them play Liverpool 26 times in the six years Benitez was in charge at Anfield.

Benitez said in 2007 that he would never manage Chelsea, and mocked them for laying out flags for their fans to wave before a Champions League meeting between the sides. "Our fans don't need plastic flags," he said at the time.

Recalling those comments now, he said: "I was just trying to encourage our fans, that's all. You try to create a good environment and if you remember in the Champions League semi-final, there was massive support from our fans for our players. It had to be like this. If you have a chance, now with Chelsea, you would try to do the same, for everyone, for the team."

Benitez, who won the Champions League with Liverpool in 2005, admits that his wife Montse and daughters Claudia and Agata have become adopted Scousers. The family moved to Italy when he took charge of Inter Milan in 2010, but returned to their home in the Wirral village of Caldy soon after he was sacked just six months later.

Benitez said: "When we went to Italy, we had to decide whether to move the family or not. In the end, we moved together but when we came back you could see the smiles on their faces, so that was enough. They have all their friends here and the little one [Agata] thinks she is from Liverpool because she has been there all her life."

Form

Chelsea have won four and lost two of their last six Premier League games, with the defeats to Manchester City and Southampton slightly offsetting the effect of (perhaps expected) triumphs against West Brom, West Ham, Sunderland and Fulham.

Liverpool have also lost to the Saints in recent weeks, but that is their only defeat in the last six. The Reds have drawn their last two games - against West Ham and Reading - however, a disappointing streak that has effectively stymied any hopes the club had of securing European football for next season.

Team news

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers could return Raheem Sterling to the fold depending on the status of his thigh injury, while Stewart Downing is fully fit after a slight illness last week. However, the boss remains without Fabio Borini and midfielder Joe Allen, who are both still recovering from shoulder injuries, while defender Martin Kelly remains a long-term case.

Ashley Cole (hamstring) and Gary Cahill (knee) are both still likely to be sidelined for this contest for the Blues, while Oriel Romeu is a long-term absentee. Benitez's known penchant for rotation may lead to a few changes from the side that faced Fulham in midweek, with Jon Obi Mikel, Oscar and Demba Ba perhaps in line for starts after being on the bench at Craven Cottage.

Head-to-head battles

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  • Stewart Downing v Victor Moses

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One to watch

If Benitez is the focus of attention on the sidelines, then it is Fernando Torres who will be subject to the most interrogation on the pitch - assuming he is picked ahead of the oft-favoured Demba Ba, that is. The Spaniard enjoyed a stellar scoring time while with Liverpool but, a few encouraging runs apart, has struggled to reach that same form while in the blue of Chelsea.

Another return to Anfield might not see him get the greatest reception, but a game on a familiar pitch may nudge him towards becoming a greater threat towards goal once again. With Luis Suarez likely to be a livewire at the other end of the pitch, Chelsea will need Torres to be at his best.

Key battle

If the two strikers at either end of the pitch will garner the majority of the attention, then it is perhaps the men in the middle who will do the majority of the dirty work. Steven Gerrard is usually at the heart of everything significant Liverpool do - in both defence and attack - and that is unlikely to change on Sunday.

Juan Mata is more of a creative presence than a defensive one (although he does work diligently in that area when required), but he remains Chelsea's pivotal presence on the pitch. How the Spaniard operates with Gerrard in close attendance could go some way to deciding the course of the contest.

Prediction and bet

Liverpool have proven to be a generally tough opponent for top sides this season, but an inability to put away so-called 'lesser sides' has really harmed them in their attempt to break into the top six. In reality, the Reds have little to play for this season - but that might help them against Chelsea, who are still in a taut fight for Champions League qualification.

Ultimately, we think home advantage - accentuated by the invigorating presence of Benitez and Torres - could prove critical for the Reds, with the inconsistent Blues caught on an off-day to provide another twist in the race for the top four.

Liverpool to win 2-1 is 15/2 with bet365, while Daniel Sturridge - against his former side - to score the final goal of the game is 9/2.

Final score: 2-1

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