Precisely three years ago, Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool side prepared for their Europa League semi-final first-leg clash against Atletico Madrid with a comfortable 3-0 home league victory over West Ham United. This weekend, the Spaniard will return to Anfield as a manager once again, though this time in charge of Chelsea – the old enemy – ahead of the Londoners’ very own upcoming Europa League semi-final fixture against Basel on Thursday.
It is perhaps fitting that Benitez will use Chelsea’s Premier League game at Anfield as preparation for the Blues’ crunch European tie, for the former Inter and Valencia manager impressed so many with Liverpool’s success in continental competitions during his time on Merseyside – and results on the Reds’ ground played a key part in those achievements.
There are some who will claim that this game is not about Benitez, but such a statement could not be further from the truth. The Spaniard is making all the headlines ahead of this clash, with supporters on both sides undoubtedly curious to see exactly how his return to Anfield pans out. There are various sub-plots to this story and given how easily Benitez seems to attract controversy, it would come as no surprise if there was to be a twist in this intriguing tale on Sunday.
The atmosphere when Liverpool have played Chelsea in recent years has been electric and that is largely down to the rivalry formed between the two sides while Benitez was in charge of the Reds. The enmity was sparked when the Anfield outfit scored a dubious goal to knock Chelsea out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage of the 2004/2005 season. The rest, as they say, is history.
Chelsea’s supporters have not forgiven the Spaniard for the jibes aimed towards them as this rivalry picked up pace and indeed some fans have given Benitez a tough time from the moment he was appointed as the Blues’ interim manager. It will be interesting to see how much appreciation Benitez is shown by the home crowd and compare it to the reception he will receive from the visitors’ section.
Benitez has, of course, insisted that he would like his team to beat Liverpool on Sunday as Chelsea aim to seal a top-three finish in the Premier League. However, the much-maligned manager also wished the Reds the best of luck for after the fixture and claimed that it would be ‘fantastic’ if Brendan Rodgers’ side could win all their remaining games after the weekend.
Those comments are likely to irritate the Chelsea faithful, but will come as music to the ears of those Liverpool fans who hold the Spaniard in high regard and still hope that Benitez will one day return to the Anfield hot-seat. For now, however, Rodgers appears to have the support of the Reds’ American owners, who seem willing to give him the time needed to fully implement his philosophy.
But some of those on the Kop, who witnessed their side mount a serious title challenge only four years ago, are yet to be fully convinced by the former Swansea manager. Sunday will provide Rodgers with an opportunity to get the better of a former Liverpool favourite and win some fans of his own.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Liverpool