Rafael Benitez admits Liverpool’s brittle confidence will be on the line in Tuesday’s Premier League showdown at fourth-placed Aston Villa.
The Spaniard is clinging to the hope that two wins in the last three matches has gone some way to rebuilding the fragile mental strength of a Reds side that has an overall record of just five wins in their last 18 matches.
And for Benitez, the added pressure is that their trip to Villa Park sees them up against one of their main rivals for a place in the top four and next season’s Champions League. Benitez believes the second half of the season will be a battle with Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham for their entry back into Europe’s elite competition.
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After the nervy Boxing Day win at home to Wolves, Benitez said: "People keep asking me why I said recently that I would categorically guarantee that we will be in the top four – but what do you expect from me?
"I have to say that. We have confidence and we have to do it because we are a top side."
Villa’s late demise at Arsenal on Sunday has given Liverpool some hope, with the difference between the Midlanders and themselves in seventh spot now five points. Benitez said: "After the win over Wolves, we will now have more confidence and that will be very good for the whole team.
"But we know we have to keep winning to get fourth place. We need clean sheets and we now have to be ready for Aston Villa.
"We must discover if we have the confidence now to win there and to get closer to the top of the table.
"But we know Villa are a very good team who are ahead of us, and one we must beat.
"To get back to where we want to be we must start winning games in a row. If we do that at Villa it will be easier for us to keep our confidence higher."
Liverpool will still be without the suspended Javier Mascherano, and Benitez must decide whether to persist with Alberto Aquilani in midfield and whether he should recall Dirk Kuyt, who was rested against Wolves.
The significance of the Villa match is not lost on anyone at Anfield. Defender Jamie Carragher said: "We are told every week that we cannot afford to lose another game."
Liverpool’s slump really started back in September – the last time they were in the top four this campaign and the beginning of the 18-match run that has seen them eliminated from the Champions league and fall off the pace at the top of the Premier League.
During the 18 matches since the 6-1 win over Hull, Liverpool have only faced one of the sides they believe are their main rivals for fourth spot. That was a 2-2 home draw with Manchester City. But now Liverpool face Villa and Spurs in successive league games and have the return with Roberto Mancini’s outfit in February.
These are the games that will dictate whether Liverpool can regain their status as part of the one-time ‘big four’. After the home match against Tottenham on January 10, Liverpool face seven sides from the bottom half of the table as they look to revive their flagging fortunes.
Benitez said: "If we can win at Villa we will gain more confidence for the future.
"Villa, Spurs and Manchester City are all doing well and we know we must compete with them for fourth place.
"We know, though, that this time it is more difficult. Previously Villa have done well in the first half of a season and then lost games.
"But they have spent some money, they have good players, and we accept that they will make it difficult for us in the fight for fourth position."