MANCHESTER, March 16 – Rafael Benitez has challenged his Liverpool squad to test Manchester United's nerve by winning all nine of their remaining matches in the Premier League.
Despite Liverpool’s stunning 4-1 win at Old Trafford on Saturday, United remain masters of their own destiny with a four-pont lead and a game in hand providing a substantial margin for error over the next two months.
Benitez describes himself as "optimistic but realistic" about the chances of United’s stumbling before the finishing line, but a nine-match winning streak down the final stretch certainly does not look beyond his side after what was an unforgettable week for Liverpool fans.
Four days after dishing out a 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid, the Reds came from behind to complete their biggest win at United since 1936.
"We have played better this season but not against a team of United’s quality," the Spaniard said. "To beat Real and United, two of the biggest teams in Europe, in the same week and score four goals against them is fantastic.
"But the best weeks in football are when you win titles. To win games is part of the battle but to win the war, that is the most important thing."
Having masterminded home and away wins over United and not lost to either Arsenal or Chelsea this season, Benitez can convincingly argue that Liverpool are making progress towards the club’s holy grail of winning a first English title since 1990.
But he recognises it is an objective that may have to wait for next season.
"It depends on United," he said. "They have to lose games and realistically we have to win all ours. We are in a better position than we were but I’m realistic. We know all about the quality and the strength in depth in United’s squad. The important thing now is that we do our job and win our matches."
United’s fixtures against Aston Villa, Manchester City and Arsenal are the ones which Benitez will regard as most likely to result in United dropping points, although the fact that they are all at Old Trafford is in the champions’ favour, as is the fact that Liverpool still have to entertain both Villa and Arsenal.
Benitez must also hope that his talismen, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, remain free of the injuries that have plagued them so far this season.
Torres played Saturday’s match in some pain and Benitez knows his striker’s troublesome right ankle will require careful management as the business end of the season looms.
"Torres and Gerrard are key players for us," he said. "When they are on the pitch the rest of the team has more confidence, because they know either of them can change a game at any moment."
United were undone on Saturday by their own errors. Having taken the lead through Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty, they gifted Torres an equaliser through an error by Nemanja Vidic.
Torres and Gerrard combined to win a penalty that Gerrard converted four minutes from half-time and United’s fate was sealed 15 minutes from the final whistle, when Vidic pulled down the Liverpool captain in a goalscoring position, ensuring he was sent off against Liverpool for the second time this season.
Fabio Aurelio bent in the resulting freekick and Andrea Dossena rounded off the rout in injury time.
For United, the task of wiping out the memory of what their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, described ruefully as "one of those days," begins on Saturday at Fulham, who were unable to live with the champions when the two sides met in the FA Cup earlier this month.
Ferguson insisted there was no need to panic.
"It was a bad day in terms of the goals we lost but I couldn’t argue with the quality of play that much," the Scot argued.
"One or two players were a little bit short in terms of what we expect of them but I do know the football was good, we kept driving on and they showed good energy, even though we only had two and a half days to prepare for the match.
"Now the thing is to respond. It always is at this club — you lose a game and you respond. We always do."