x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Liverpool face a champion test

Two games this week will go a long way to show just how prepared Liverpool are to challenge for honours this season.

Liverpool hope that a successful trip to Spain will give them momentum for Sunday's clash with Chelsea.
Liverpool hope that a successful trip to Spain will give them momentum for Sunday's clash with Chelsea.

Two games this week will go a long way to show just how prepared Liverpool are to challenge for honours this season. An impressive unbeaten start has put them joint top of the Premier League and their Champions League group. But, with expectations high, they now face their biggest test at home and abroad, and a closer examination of their credentials. Rafa Benitez is back home in Madrid tonight, knowing victory at Atletico, who also have a 100 per cent record in Group D, should be enough to see them through to the last 16 in Europe. And the Liverpool manager would love nothing more than to go into Sunday's league clash at rivals Chelsea with a sixth straight win under their belts and their belief intact. "I am confident that my players can produce the right performances this week," said Benitez. "We are showing character and the right mentality you need for a winning team. I don't like to talk too much about percentages but I always say we can improve. "For me, 70 per cent could be a figure, but it's difficult to say. There is still a lot of room for improvement." That might well be a reference to the fact Liverpool have also done things the hard way so far, acquiring the tag of 'comeback kings' for producing four valuable wins after being behind. It highlights the steely determination in the Anfield camp to bridge the gap between being also-rans and champions, and the players are keen for that to continue. With injury ruling out an emotional return to his former club for Fernando Torres, one player who will have extra incentive at the Vicente Calderon Stadium tonight is Pepe Reina, whose father Miguel played for Atletico in the 1970s. The Liverpool keeper has been linked with a move to the Spaish outfit, and admits he dreams of a Champions League final between the two sides. "It will not be just another game because to play against Atletico Madrid is always nice, but in the end it is a match that you need to go out to win," said Reina. "I have many memories of this club, but it is clear that I will defend my shirt and we will go out and give it everything. I would settle right now for Atletico Madrid and Liverpool to go through to the next round, and that we meet each other in the final." Atletico are in disarray though after three successive losses in La Liga, including a heartbreaking injury-time derby defeat to Real. That hurt, putting the coach Javier Aguirre under pressure and he might not help his cause if he rests his prize asset Sergio 'Kun' Aguero. The much-vaunted Argentine and his strike partner Diego Forlan have the ability to pose major problems for the Liverpool defence, but Reina says Florent Sinama-Pongolle, a former Red, is another threat. "Forlan and Kun are two great players and two great strikers, but it's not only them," he added. "Flo is also going through a great spell. They have a wide variety of players who can make life hard for you."

akhan@thenational.ae