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Benitez focused whatever standard of opposition; CHAMPIONS LEAGUE 3RD QUALIFYING RND FIRST LEG STANDARD LIEGE v LIVERPOOL, TONIGHT, 8PM live on ITV1.

Byline: IAN DOYLE in Liege

ON watching his team paired against Liverpool in the Champions League draw, a disbelieving Standard Liege coach Laszlo Boloni admitted to responding with a choice expletive.

Rafael Benitez, though, would be forgiven for muttering a few swear words of his own given the less-than-ideal preparations for tonight's crucial final qualifying round first leg in Belgium.

From the staggered return to pre-season of his squad, the absence of key players on Olympics duty and the ongoing Gareth Barry saga, things haven't exactly gone according to plan for the meticulous Spaniard. And while the opposition would appear less foreboding than some of the others Liverpool could have been paired with, Benitez is wary of the threat posed by the Belgian champions.

After all, the sight of UEFA Cup finalists Rangers being dumped out the previous round by FBK Kaunas was a sobering reminder of how the estimated pounds 12million windfall of qualification to the group stages of the Champions League is by no means a formality.

Benitez, though, has good form at this round of the competition. In four previous seasons, the Spaniard has successfully guided Liverpool past Grazer AK, CSKA Sofia, Maccabi Haifa and Toulouse, albeit not without a scare or two.

Indeed, Liverpool have never lost a Champions League qualifier and have won nine of 11 previous games against Belgian opposition, including victory in both legs against Standard in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1965.

But Benitez says: "These games are very dangerous, so we will be very focused on the game.

"The first game is really important. We have the advantage of playing the second leg at Anfield, but if we can have a good result in the first game then it will be better for us."

"I don't think the financial need to qualify for the group stages puts on any added pressure. Every year it has been the same. We have experience of this in the past, and we've always got through, so hopefully we can do the same.

"But every club, the top sides especially, must be aware of the quality of the other teams in this competition. You must be focused for every game and you can't change things if you make a mistake."

Benitez has been unable to work with his full squad at any point during the summer and only welcomed back the Spanish contingent a fortnight ago following their Euro 2008 exploits.

He adds: "Pre-season has been difficult with the players having come back at different times, but we're really pleased with the way the young players have come through and showed their quality, the way the senior players and new players have done and the mood is really good."

While Liverpool have lost Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva and Ryan Babel to Olympic duty in Beijing, Standard Liege have worked a way around the Games.

They were helped by skipper Steven Defour, a 20-year-old midfielder who was awarded the Golden Shoe for the most valuable player in the Belgian League last season, electing not to represent Belgium in China.

Marouane Fellaini, another highly-rated 20-year-old, did make the trip to the Far East. But such is his importance to Standard, the club's supremo Lucien D'Onofrio sent his private jet to Beijing to collect him specifically for tonight's match.

Standard ended a 25-year wait to win the league last season, going 31 games unbeaten and losing their only match of the campaign after the championship had already been secured.

"We've watched and analysed Standard Liege," says Benitez. "I haven't seen too may of their games, but the staff have been watching them and because they have changed the coach we'll need to see what effect that has.

"They are a good team, and we know they are especially tough when they are playing at home. They are very strong in defence, and don't concede a lot of goals.

"They might not be used to the Champions League, but they only lost one league game last season and showed their quality.

"Whenever you play away from home in Europe, it's always difficult.

"We have confidence in our players but when you play against a good team in Europe you need to be careful. We know they lost to St Etienne recently in a friendly but they beat Anderlecht in the (Belgian) Super Cup."

Standard have had some problems. Dieumerci Mbokani, their Congolese striker, only returned to Belgium on Monday after visiting Africa because of a family bereavement, while Milan Jovanovic, their top scorer from last year and the Belgian footballer of the year, is a target for PSV Eindhoven and may not appear tonight.

Standard's 29,200-capacity Stade Maurice Dufrasne, known locally as the "Chaudron de Sclessin", is renowned in Belgium for its intense atmosphere.

And one Liverpool player hopeful of getting a run-out this evening is Andriy Voronin.

The Ukrainian marked his first competitive appearance for the Anfield side last season with a goal in the Champions League qualifier in Toulouse, but went on to endure a disappointing campaign.

Voronin has subsequently been linked with a departure, particularly after the arrival of Robbie Keane. But, after scoring three times in pre-season including the winner against Lazio on Friday, the 29-year-old is vowing to fight for his place.

"I have had a great pre-season run and am the fittest I have ever been," says Voronin.

"I am really looking forward to this season and know I can do a job for the team.

"It's not going to be easy for me but I am up for the fight and am working very hard.

"My English has improved and I have settled well in Liverpool. Now I need the chance to prove my quality."

Log on to www.liverpooldailypost.co.uk for the first reports on Liverpool's match in Belgium

Liverpool v Belgium Opposition Head-to-head

Overall Record

P11 W9 D1 L1 Previous Meetings

2005-06 Anderlecht H 3-0 A 1-0 (UEFA Champions

League)

1978-79 Anderlecht H 2-1 A 1-3 (European Super Cup final)

1977-78 FC Bruges N 1-0 (European Cup final)

1975-76 FC Bruges H 3-2 A 1-1 (UEFA Cup final)

1965-66 Standard Liege H 3-1 A 2-1 (European Cup

Winners Cup) 1964-65 Anderlecht H 3-0 A 1-0 (European Cup)

Best Betting Odds

H 7-1 (Ladbrokes, William Hill, bet365)

A 8-15 (Stan James, BlueSquare, BetDirect, BetFred)

D 3-1 (Ladbrokes, William Hill)

CAPTION(S):

Rafael Benitez watching his Liverpool players during training Pictures: COLIN LANE; PROBABLE LINE-UPS STANDARD LIEGE (4-4-2) LIVERPOOL (4-4-2)
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Aug 13, 2008
Words:1080
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