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Is Rafa Benitez clutching at straws with his Champions League hype at Liverpool?

Rafa Benitez may have the excuses laid out in a row, but COS writer Chester Carrick isn’t buying it.

Wednesday night’s 1-0 defeat at Upton Park represented a new low in Liverpool’s season. Leading up to the match, manager Rafael Benitez was keen to point out that his team were better equipped to land fourth place than the likes of Everton and Aston Villa.

That, in itself, must have been a bitter pill to swallow for the Spaniard, especially after such grandiose ambitions at the beginning of the campaign, where the Reds were actually one of the bookmakers’ favourites for the title after a bright start.

However, Rafa is clearly one who always look on the bright side of life. In the same breath on Wednesday, he was happily dismissing the importance of the Premier League and instead pointing to the fact that Liverpool had been the best English club in Europe since he took over the managerial reins. This despite the fact that if your team is out of the running as far as the domestic title is concerned, it’s far easier to focus and concentrate ones efforts on the Champions League instead!

“How many teams have won the Champions League? That is a massive trophy and it is more difficult to win than any other trophy,” Benítez said. “The Premier League is our target because we have won the Champions League. If you ask Chelsea or Arsenal what they would like to win most of all, I am sure they would say the Champions League. After 18 years without the Premier League we want to win it, but we have to be more consistent.”

Needing consistency is an understatement for Liverpool at the moment – it’s been more than a month since they last won in the league and that was a last-minute scrappy winner against Premier League whipping boys Derby County. Draw has followed draw,and the Reds’ four-game run of one-pointers came to an end against West Ham – with a defeat, after Mark Noble despatched an injury-time penalty.

Is Benitez right to say that the Champions League is the hardest competition to win? After all, it’s a cup competition where a reasonable degree of luck is required to go all the way. The sheer range of teams that have triumphed in the past few seasons suggest there is a random element in predicting the winner, while the draw obviously has a big say in determining which teams progress. Teams can rely on no such luck in their respective domestic leagues, where they have to deliver the goods every week, playing fantastically or otherwise.

There’s no doubting that the quality of football in Europe is generally far superior to that you would see on most Premier League football pitches every weekend. However, in order to make the Champions League final, apart from surviving the group stage, you have to beat three teams (each over two legs) which is a format that often suits teams with strong defences (Liverpool and Porto are good examples of this in the past few seasons). At the moment, Rafael Benitez cannot even be confident that his previously-stubborn rearguard will be anywhere near solid enough to contain Italian champions Inter next month.

What shall we hear from the beleaguered Spaniard if defeat occurs in Europe? That the FA Cup is a treasured competition and that his team have done well to overcome the might of Luton, Havant and Barnsley in successive rounds? At least their fans can draw comfort from the fact that one of Manchester United or Arsenal will bow out at the next stage. Can Liverpool be consistent enough to take this consolation prize?

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