LIVERPOOL manager Rafael Benitez begins what he believes is a “crucial” period for his side with the 213th Merseyside derby at home to Everton today.
With a midweek visit to Arsenal and then a trip to Manchester City a fortnight tomorrow those results will go a long way to defining their season.
However, first up is the visit of Liverpool’s neighbours where a win would lift Benitez’s side into the top four with current incumbents Tottenham kicking off in the evening.
“We talk about crucial times and this period is very important,” said the Reds boss.
“I’ve spoken with the players and we have been analysing what we have (in terms of games) until the end of the season and this is the most crucial phase.
“We are close to the top four and we cannot make too many mistakes and we play against three teams that are around us.
“It is important to keep winning games to maintain the momentum and it would be fantastic to win all three but you have to start with the first one.
“We want to make sure we get back into the top four and this is the first opportunity to try and do that.”
The two teams are probably more equally matched than at any time this season with Liverpool unbeaten in six league games – having conceded just once – and Everton having not lost in nine.
In fact the Toffees’ last defeat came in the derby at Goodison Park at the end of November but history will be against them when they turn up today at a ground where they have not won for 11 years.
However, Benitez does not believe current form will have much of an impact.
“Both Everton and us and are on a good run so both will come into the game with confidence,” he said.
“But in the past sometimes we were not in a good moment and won and sometimes we were in a good moment and lost.
“A derby is a derby and is different to any other game so form is not the most important thing now.”
Merseyside derbies have been littered with numerous red cards over the years and Benitez is keen for his players to embrace the passion of the encounter but still keep their cool.
“You have to play with passion and your brain and that way you will be better and be able to control the game,” said the Liverpool manager, who has lost just two of his 11 Barclays Premier League derbies.
“It is important to keep calm and try to play good football. You want to win playing well because that is easier but a derby is more difficult.
“I try to influence the game beforehand but during the game it is difficult because the crowd don’t allow you to shout too much and the players cannot hear you.”
The match takes on greater significance for local lads Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard but Benitez said all his players were aware of the importance of the clash.
“The players have confidence and don’t want to lose any game but for a local player not to lose this game always is maybe more important,” said the Spaniard.
“We know Gerrard and Carragher can be an inspiration for the other players because they have passion.
“But we have to be professionals and just think about getting three points and it doesn’t matter about the name of the opponents.”
The more defensively-minded Lucas could be restored to the central midfield battleground at the expense of playmaker Alberto Aquilani but Benitez is confident his Italian summer signing can cope with the occasion if selected.
“Aquilani has played for Roma against Lazio so he has some experience of derbies and he has quality and can play if necessary,” he said.
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