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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Sep, 17, 2007

Benitez after quick qualification

Rafael Benitez wants his Liverpool team to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League long before the end of the their group matches.

The Anfield chief has already admitted he sees the Barclays Premier League as his priority for this season, a statement made well ahead of their opening Champions League group A match here in Porto.

In recent seasons, Liverpool have frequently had to rely on last-day heroics - something skipper Steven Gerrard has been forced to specialise in - to make sure that the club reaches the last 16.

That, insists Benitez, has to change if the club are to have any chance of managing their Premier League campaign successfully.

Last season was the first time in the competition's current format that they went into the final group game in Istanbul against Galatasaray with their destiny already assured.

And now Benitez wants that scenario repeated so that when they arrive in Marseille for their last group match in early December, their fate will already be decided.

He said: 'It is clear that the perfect situation is to get to the last game and already be qualified for the next stage. Last season we achieved that and by the time we went to Galatasaray for the last group match, we had already qualified.

'This is something we must achieve regularly. The way to do that is to win from the very first match in the group, if you do that it is easier to manage the rest of the Champions League games and to be able to concentrate on the Premier League as well.'

With the Premier League title now the prize Benitez covets above all else, he does not need Champions League problems getting in the way of that vision.

Benitez, who will be without full-back John Arne Riise in Portugal because of a groin injury sustained playing for Norway last week, has a very clear objective as the group matches unfold over next three months.

He says: 'We are not thinking of drawing this one, like we did with last season's first group game in Eindhoven, we are aiming to win.

'I feel we need 12 points to get through to the next stage. Some people say 10 is enough, but if we win our three home games and then achieve one away win, that should be enough.

'So it is important that we win early in the group, and not have to depend on the last match. It is best to have the points now, that is what you need and that is why we aim to win here in Porto.

'I know the group and the quality of the teams, it will be difficult but we know what we need to do.

'We have confidence and experience in Europe, we should be able to manage the situation.'

As the domestic season hots up, Benitez wants to rotate his large squad to make sure the title campaign stays on track, with the Champions League qualification already in the bag.

That is the real step up Liverpool, despite two final appearances in three seasons, have to make.

That is how the real top teams in Europe manage their seasons. And it is something that Liverpool, apart from last term, have struggled to achieve.

But this is a new Liverpool. One with vast money spent on rebuilding Benitez's squad, and they will be expected to act with the confidence and arrogance Manchester United and AC Milan have done over the years.

Benitez adds: 'As a top side you must think of winning every competition, everything is a challenge, but right now we can concentrate on the Champions League.

'If we win this one, it will give us the opportunity to clinch qualification early. That is important, if we can start winning now it makes it easier later on.

'Then you can start counting the points, we will be happy then and then think about everything else we are chasing.'

Liverpool face a Porto side with a 100% record at the head of the Portuguese league after four successive wins.

Benitez continued: 'We have confidence and experience in Europe, we should be able to manage the situation.

'But Porto are a difficult opponent. Every season they seem to sell very good players, but always they have a good team and do well in Europe.'

Benitez is expected to start with Gerrard and Fernando Torres, both on the bench for the 0-0 draw at Portsmouth on Saturday, with Dirk Kuyt expected to partner the Spanish star up front.

Benitez says: 'Mentally we will be ready but physically we will have to change some players. We trained a little on Sunday, but you can't do too much, it is all about being careful with your players.

'The team has confidence in every game, in the league and the Champions League. We have experience and quality to approach this game with confidence.

'We will now see the quality of our players in these difficult situations.

'We were able to use experienced players from the bench at Portsmouth and almost won the game. Now if we use those same players from the start against Porto it will be a real benefit to our objectives.'

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