Middlesbrough v Liverpool Match Preview: Benitez urges focus to banish Boro hoodoo
FROM Madrid to Middlesbrough in the space of three days - a contrast that perfectly sums up the inconsistency of Liverpool's season.
Thriving in lavish surroundings and shining on the big stage one minute, fluffing their lines in the lower-key venues the next.
All too often this season the title challenge has been undermined by a distinct lack of vibrancy and a struggle to find inspiration - characteristics that should have them feeling right at home at the Riverside this afternoon.
Except that the Reds' record at this ground - no wins for seven years and only one Fernando Torres goal to show for all their visits since then - gives them no reason to put their feet up today.
And they know only too well that failure to build on the 1-0 victory in the Bernabeu that puts them on the brink of another Champions League quarter-final will somewhat stifle the euphoria built up on Wednesday.
Because between now and Real's first ever visit to Anfield a week on Tuesday, Liverpool have the opportunity to claw back some of the lost ground on Premier league favourites Manchester United.
With the immediate aim to ensure that the leaders' advantage is cut from seven points to four when they take to the Wembley field for tomorrow's Carling Cup final.
"We have to take this opportunity to put pressure on Manchester United," said Benitez.
"Before we play Real Madrid again we have two big games that are just as big, Middlesbrough and Sunderland. Both are very difficult and both vital that we win.
"The players know how important today's game is so hopefully they will be really focused and after the game we can talk about a new victory.
"The confidence, the atmosphere, the mood among the players is very positive after the win in Madrid. Hopefully that will have a good impact on the club. We know that seven points behind is not a good position to be in but we need to keep United under pressure by winning games. That's all we can do, just concentrate on the next game and make sure we stay in there.
"We know we have to win almost every game to do that and Middlesbrough is our first opportunity to pounce."
And in a subtle insistence that his team won't be affected by yesterday's resignation of chief executive Rick Parry, Benitez added: "Despite all the things that seem to be going on off the pitch, the behaviour of the players has been very good.
"Whatever they read or see on TV, they continue to do well and now they have won in the Bernabeu. They have shown what good professionals they are."
Boro are hoping to build on a lucrative midweek of their own when they welcome Benitez's men today.
Their 2-0 FA Cup fifth-round replay win over West Ham on Wednesday set up a quarter-final tie at Everton next month.
But their form in the cup is in stark contrast to their struggles in the league, where they have gone almost four months without a victory and are just one point ahead of bottom-of-the-table West Brom.
It's a decline that surprises Benitez, as his opinion of Boro was based on the last time the two sides met in August.
Liverpool got their home campaign off to a winning start - but only thanks to two goals in the final four minutes after Mido had stunned Anfield by giving Gareth Southgate's side the lead deep into the second half.
"I'm surprised by their position," added the Spaniard, whose team was rescued from defeat at the Riverside last year by a wonder strike form Torres, who misses out this time with an ankle injury.
"It's strange because they were one of the best teams we have played, with very good counter attack and movement.
"They have a good manager who is improving and their run in the cup has been very positive for them. And it will be difficult for us because they do have players of quality.
"In the past we have played well there and not been able to win - and we've played badly and not lost as well.
"So it is a strange situation - and it is one that we need to improve on."
Meanwhile, Boro sriker Jeremie Aliadiere is determined to make a full recovery from the ankle ligament injury he returned from against West Ham to help the fight for survival today.
"It's an important game and I want to be fit to play," said the Frenchman. "We want to do well because we're in the bottom three and we want to stay in this league next year."
"The ankle's not 100% but I didn't rush back which is why I only played 60 minutes.
"The situation we're in we need to score goals and create chances to do that."