In Rafael Benítez's four seasons in charge of Liverpool FC they have won the UEFA Champions League, reached the last 16, returned to the final and last term were pipped in the semis. However, R. Standard de Liège could block the Reds' path to the group stage this time around with their third qualifying round tie level at 0-0 ahead of the second leg at Anfield.
The Belgian champions could have been taking a lead to England had Pepe Reina not produced a string of vital first-leg saves, including one from Dante Bonfim's penalty. Since then, Liverpool have made a good start to the Premier League season with wins against Sunderland AFC and Middlesbrough FC and Benítez is sure another victory, and a group stage place, is within Liverpool's grasp.
"Our display this time will be much, much better," said Benítez, who has earned all of his previous Liverpool campaigns in this competition through qualifying. "Of that I am confident. Our performance in Liege was poor, but the result was good. We did not concede and we hope that playing the second leg at Anfield will make a massive difference." Midfielder Javier Macherano is available again after helping Argentina to Olympic gold but Benítez is not intending to deploy him against Standard though Ryan Babel, who represented the Netherlands in China, returned to club action at the weekend. Steven Gerrard was only a first-leg substitute due to injury but is now starting regularly, scoring the winner against Middlesbrough.
Standard are making their first attempt to qualify for the group stage and since holding Liverpool have beaten FCV Dender EH 3-1 and KVC Westerlo 3-0 to take the early league lead in Belgium. Dieudonné Mbokani Bezua is in hot form with four goals in those two games while captain Steven Defour and defender Oguchi Onyewu, the latter suspended for the first leg, look likely to start despite being used as substitutes against Westerlo on Saturday.
Coach László Bölöni explained the decision to bench the pair: "This was not because of the upcoming Liverpool match. They were just too tired to play. I respect every competition and will always play with the team which I think is the strongest. No player is always a certain starter with me. And I think tiredness will be our biggest problem this season. Whether we reach the Champions League group stage or not, my squad is not very big."
Onyewu is expected to take over from Tomislav Mikulić at the back while striker Milan Jovanović has made the journey, having seemingly opted to remain at Standard rather than join PSV Eindhoven. Bölöni is hopeful that Standard can perform at Anfield. "They have a super stadium, so do we," he said. "They have super fans, so do we. They have super players, so do we. They have the only thing my team lacks, lads who have 40 matches of Premier League experience."
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