Benitez needs Liverpool rally against United

LONDON: Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez received the dreaded 'vote of confidence' ahead of Sunday's clash against Manchester United but the Spaniard knows kind words alone cannot do much for his side.

The Reds, who last won the English title back in 1990, go into this weekend's Anfield fixture on the back of four straight defeats and are eighth in the table, already seven points behind arch-rivals and Premier League leaders United.

Another defeat will likely spell the end of Liverpool's latest title challenge - a bitter pill for those fans who grew up lauding it over United during the Merseysiders' decades of dominance in the 1970s and 1980s.

And to make matters worse, Liverpool could well kick-off on Sunday without the star duo of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, both battling to overcome groin problems.

Liverpool's recent run has inevitably turned the spotlight on Benitez, in charge at Anfield since 2004.

He appears safe in his post for the time being, if only because it would cost feuding American co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks too much, at a reported 20 million pounds, to sack the former Valencia manager, who signed a new five-year contract seven months ago.

However, Gillett insisted both he and Hicks were united in their admiration for Benitez, saying: "We have just entered into a long-term agreement with Rafa.

"Our family is extraordinarily pleased with him, we think he is absolutely as good as there is in the business and I am sure the Hicks' feel the same way. We just extended his contract."

Gillett also told the club website, "I think the run of results disappoints everybody. Certainly, it disappoints the fans and it disappoints Rafa. We are all disappointed, but we are in this together."

Liverpool were beaten in midweek in the Champions League by Lyon while United won away to CSKA Moscow.

But Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand said recent results would be an irrelevance this weekend.

"I think form goes out of the window in these games," Ferdinand told MUTV. "We all know that when there's a big rivalry between two teams, whether it's a derby or a big cup clash, form doesn't come into it.

"It all comes down to who performs best on the day and that's what we're looking to do," the England centre-back added.

United could find themselves kicking-off in second place if Chelsea win at home to Blackburn on Saturday.

The Blues' form away from Stamford Bridge has been patchy, with defeats away to Wigan and Aston Villa.

But they have been a different proposition back in west London, while a midweek success over Atletico Madrid maintained their winning start to this season's Champions League.

Ivory Coast striker Salomon Kalou, who scored twice in the 4-0 win over Atletico, said: "It was a very good opportunity for me, I haven't been playing lately and I scored two goals which is very good.

"It's very important for a player to get on the pitch and show what he can do."

At the other end of the table, basement club Portsmouth travel to fellow relegation candidates Hull City.

The teams have managed just three league wins between them this season, while Portsmouth, who have been beset by ownership problems so far this campaign suffered fresh off-field turmoil on Thursday when it emerged their chief executive, Peter Storrie, was in line to face tax evasion charges.

Birmingham, beaten 3-1 away to Arsenal last time out, welcome Sunderland to St Andrews for the Midlands side's first home match since the club was taken over by Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung.

Saturday's other matches see high-flyers Tottenham taking on Stoke while Wolves play Aston Villa and Burnley face Wigan.

European commitments mean that, in addition to the Liverpool-United match, there are three other fixtures on Sunday with big-spenders Manchester City at home to Fulham, West Ham up against Arsenal in an all-London affair and Everton making the short journey to Bolton.