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Mar 10, 2009

Rafa defends record ahead of Real Madrid test

Rafael Benitez believes he deserves more credit for the job he has done since taking over at Liverpool in 2004.

The Reds head into Tuesday night's Champions League last-16, second-leg clash with Real Madrid knowing that UEFA rank Benitez's side as Europe's best team, based on performances in the tournament over the last five years.

Since taking over the Spaniard has led the Anfield club to their fifth European Cup in 2005 and also guided them to the final two years later.

However, Benitez has suffered stinging criticism from some quarters for his inability to oversee a concerted Premier League title challenge - something which again appears to have eluded him this season.

Liverpool last won the league title in 1991 and the club's proud record of 18 championships will be equalled this season by fierce rivals Manchester United if, as seems almost inevitable, they win the Premier League.

But Benitez has hit back: ''You have to judge people on the job they are doing and I am happy for anyone to look at how we have progressed in my time at Liverpool. The team is improving all the time and the squad is now better than ever. We are closer to the Premier League title and going well in the Champions League again.

''The UEFA findings show we have the best record in Europe over the last five years. Yet some of the messages still coming my way are not the best.

''Maybe some people don't realise how difficult it is to keep succeeding in the Champions League but the facts are there for all to see. Anyone can see what I have done here.''

Benitez will keep Real Madrid guessing until the last moment over his side for the clash at Anfield. The Reds are 1-0 ahead from the first leg of their last-16 clash, and are favourites to complete the job against the Spanish champions and reach the quarter-finals.

But Benitez's planning is being handicapped by injuries to Fernando Torres, Alvaro Arbeloa and Yossi Benayoun, the goalscoring hero of the win in the Bernabeu a fortnight ago.

Torres, recovering from an ankle injury, has trained for the past two days and will have another session on Tuesday before Benitez makes his decision on the Spain striker.

He may not be risked from the start with Saturday's Premier League trip to Manchester United in mind.

Arbeloa is struggling with a hamstring injury while Benayoun is almost certainly out with a hamstring pull suffered in training.

They are crucial injury problems for Benitez, with Arbeloa's involvement critical if he is to keep Javier Mascherano in midfield and not deploy him as an emergency full-back.

Ryan Babel, Lucas and David Ngog would all come into consideration if none of the trio is available.

Benitez said: ''If Arbeloa plays, it controls my selections for the rest of the team. Torres needs another training session and Benayoun is very likely to be out. I will give all of them every chance to make the side and a decision will be a late one.''

But Benitez has determinedly talked up his injury-hit side's chances.

''This is a huge week in Liverpool's season. We aim to progress in the Champions League, it is so important for the fans and the club and the money, for Liverpool to reach the quarter-finals,'' he said.

''Then we have the game at Manchester United. If we win then we can still think about the title, if you cannot do that it will be almost impossible to win the title.

''But we feel we are still in a fantastic position, much better than last season. We have been improving and the key is to improve a little more in the next week. We can progress in Europe. Why not? We know that we have enough quality and experience in this competition.

''The Premier League depends on the next game. Manchester United are a good team with good players, but if we win we will still have enough games left to catch them. The players have a lot of confidence because of what we did in Madrid. It will be tough to go through, but we feel we can do it.''

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