BIRMINGHAM, England, April 5 – Rafael Benitez has warned his faltering Liverpool stars that nothing short of a perfect finish to the season will do if he is to make good his promise of delivering Champions League football to Anfield.
Failure to make it into the lucrative competition would be potentially disastrous for American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks as they continue their attempts to find fresh investment in the club which will enable them to mount a serious challenge to Manchester United and Chelsea next season.
Qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition is also vital if they want to attract new players and retain the services of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, as well as Benitez himself, who remains on the wanted list of Real Madrid and Juventus.
Liverpool’s 1-1 draw at Birmingham on Sunday left Benitez’s team four points behind Manchester City, having played a game more than Roberto Mancini’s men.
Benitez’s side took the lead through Gerrard early in the second half but Liam Ridgewell equalised soon after.
Now Benitez concedes the Reds can no longer make any more mistakes if they are to claim the last Champions League spot.
"Before we did not have much of a margin for mistakes, now we have even less. We had to win our last six games before this, now we have to win five," he said.
"Fourth place is very difficult, but we have to keep going because there are still a lot of points to play for.
"We have to believe that we can win all our games and we have to have confidence that our rivals will lose games."
Benitez is banking on City, Spurs and Aston Villa, who all have tougher run-ins cancelling each other out in the scramble for fourth. He also feels Liverpool’s experience of high-stakes matches could prove a crucial advantage.
"Maybe the fact that we have experience in getting into the Champions League will be good for us and it is new for other teams. Now it is a challenge for us to win all our remaining games," he said.
After a tiring defeat against Benfica in the first leg of their Europa League quarter final in Lisbon on Thursday, Benitez substituted leading scorer Torres 25 minutes from time and the striker looked less than impressed with the decision.
Benitez also has one eye on the return leg against Benfica at Anfield on Thursday when Liverpool have to will try to overturn a 2-1 deficit and he insisted the ice pack on the knee of the Spanish international was nothing to alarm fans.
"Fernando was exhausted. He was very, very tired and that is why I substituted him. Also it was to protect his knee. He was unhappy to come off because he wanted to help the team win, but we needed fresh legs," he added.
Liverpool are not the only top six side to leave Birmingham with less than three points this season.
Both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs all failed to defeat Alex McLeish’s competitive side, who have not been beaten in front of their own fans since September.
"The players deserve great credit for that record. The fans deserve a pat on the back too. They have helped us make our ground a cauldron this season," McLeish said.
"We made it hard for Liverpool, just like we make it hard for everyone. We want to win in front of our own fans."