Europe or Bust for Rafa Benitez: Steven Gerrard at Risk for Liverpool Run-In

Ed PearceCorrespondent IApril 14, 2009

LONDON - APRIL 30:  Steven Gerrard of Liverpool is consoled by manager Rafael Benitez in defeat following the UEFA Champions League Semi Final 2nd leg match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on April 30, 2008 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Rafael Benitez yesterday confirmed that Steven Gerrard is almost certain to play tonight's Champions' League second leg at Stamford Bridge, as Liverpool seek to overturn a two-goal deficit at a rejuvenated Chelsea.  

Gerrard missed the Premier League fixture against Blackburn at the weekend and risks ruling himself out of the Reds' crucial Anfield clash with Arsenal a week today.

Speaking at the pre-match press conference, the Liverpool manager admitted the decision represents a gamble, but was typically bullish about the situation: "If we lose a player for 10 to 14 days it will be bad but would only affect one game. It's a calculated risk."  

If Benitez seemed to play down the significance of the move, he clearly recognizes the game-breaking and talismanic qualities that make his captain so much more than just "a player".  In the same breath he asserted, "with Steven and Fernando Torres together on the pitch we have a good chance." The implication is that Torres alone is not enough.

Even with the Premier League's most feared striking partnership in tandem, the odds of Benitez outwitting Chelsea counterpart Guus Hiddink, or a hampered Gerrard outrunning the indefatigable Michael Essien, are long indeed.  The emotional anniversary of Hillsborough and the memory of Istanbul will ensure there is passion aplenty to add to the Spaniard's tactical nous, but almost any other team on any other day would have been thoroughly written off.

Benitez is not the sentimental type, however, and in choosing to play his strongest hand here he has shown his priorities; Europe first, the Premier League second.

In the past this was an unhappy realization of their inability to sustain a challenge, but with Manchester United faltering, the two clubs' title chances could hinge on their results against an Arsenal side unbeaten in the league since November.

The sensible move would surely be to keep Gerrard on the bench and risk him only if Liverpool close to within a goal of glory in the final half hour.  

Arsenal have conceded just five league goals in 2009 and boast a dazzling array of attacking talents. Only a win next Tuesday will keep Liverpool in the race and they must do everything they can to achieve this.

For this is not just a question of how best to end the season with silverware, but one of the balance of power in the English game. A Liverpool title would send shock waves through the footballing world.

Benitez likes to refer his critics to his European record, but that has never quite passed muster in England. Ask any Kop faithful what they most desire.  There is a prize more coveted, more needed on Merseyside; a first Premiership title in almost 20 years.

Liverpool are, statistically, the most successful team in Europe over the last five years, but only domestic success can launch a dynasty and dislodge Manchester United as the standard-bearers of the English game.  

Gerrard is almost 29, Jamie Carragher 31; their Liverpool side have perhaps four years to become greats. That is what Benitez must aim for now.

And that is what Liverpool wants.