Benitez hails skipper as he fires Reds to final
Rafael Benitez hailed the performance of Steven Gerrard after the skipper secured the Reds' place in the final of the Carling Cup
with a 1-0 win over Watford.
Gerrard scored in the first leg of the semi-final clash at Anfield two weeks ago, and settled the result with a fine strike on 77 minutes.
"He is a key player," reflected Liverpool's manager. "When he plays, he plays well and so normally does the team.
"He is important for us, and it is our idea to have a strong team around him.
"After six months working with him, we know that he is a very good player." Gerrard had shrugged off a hamstring injury to play and left the field towards the end of the match.
Benitez said: "We want to use him always if it is possible. He can play, but he needs to be careful."
After the humiliation of going out of the FA Cup at Champion-ship side Burnley, Benitez will be hoping to be able to dedicate the first silverware of his fledgling Liverpool career to the club's fans with victory in Cardiff next month.
The manager added: "We knew how important the game was for us, for the supporters and the club - and we tried to do the best.
"I think we played with a strong mentality and played as a team. We controlled the game almost all the time.
"We have had many injury problems, have had to use many players and we still arrive at a final with players who are working hard. Now we want to offer the cup to our supporters.
He went on: "I know that it is important during your first year to get into a final. If you are there, you go to win it and we will try to do that.
"I prefer to win the final and be in the top four.
"When the board decided to sign me, they talked about five years. We need to work with the big picture, to know that it is a long race. It is my first year.
Benitez added: "I am not here for winning one trophy - I will try to win all the trophies possible. But I am not thinking about only one or to be in the top four. I am trying to improve my level all the time. I want my team to play better each day."
Gerrard happy as plan comes off
Steven Gerrard hailed a winning game-plan after Liverpool reached the Carling Cup final on Tuesday night.
Gerrard scored the only goal of the first leg match at Anfield and it was the same story at Vicarage Road as Rafael Benitez's men ended a run of three defeats without a goal with a 1-0 win.
The result earns them a February 27 clash against the winners of Wednesday's Manchester United v Chelsea clash at Old Trafford.
Liverpool played a 4-5-1 formula and the England international told Sky Sports: "We've used 4-5-1 before in the league and it's worked quite well.
"It means we can also have three up front, or three central midfielders.
"We had a game-plan before the game and it worked today."
But Gerrard added: "When you are drawn against a team lower it's a potential banana skin.
"We've coped well over the two legs but Watford have done well and, give them credit, they made it hard work for us."
"We've got a cup final to look forward to in front of 70,000 people at Cardiff.
"As a professional you want to play in as many finals as you can."
Team-mate Steve Finnan added: "Last week was a disappointing week but we've got confidence in everyone's ability.
"We were up for it tonight and I think we deserved it on the night.
"We knew what score would get us through - we kept tight at the back and Steven popped up with the goal."
Rafa hails 'very important' win
By Graeme Bailey - Sky Sports
Rafa Benitez hailed his side's win over Watford as 'very important'.
The Spaniard has guided The Reds to the Carling Cup final thanks to a 2-0 aggregate victory over Watford - after a 1-0 success on Tuesday evening.
"It [the win] was very, very important for us, the supporters and the club," Benitez told Sky Sports.
"We are in the final, we know it was difficult tonight, but we are there.
Benitez has been under-fire in recent days following three defeats in a week, which included defeat in the FA Cup to Burnley, but he shrugged that off again.
"We were always thinking about the game - not about people talking.
"We prefer to work and now we will try to give our supporters the cup.
"We have a very good squad with good professionals and good players and played a good game tonight."
Gerrard takes Reds through
By Richard Jolly - Sky Sports
Watford will have a sense of deja vu. Two weeks after Steven Gerrard scored the only goal in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final, the Liverpool captain repeated that feat at Vicarage Road to take his side to their first final under Rafael Benitez.
Such is Liverpool's recent plight that they are grateful for small mercies now. A 1-0 win against a team 37th in the league standings would not normally be cause for celebration, but it brought a conclusion to a miserable fortnight for Benitez.
The result was in doubt until Gerrard's barnstorming run and accurate finish in the 77th minute; his two goals against Watford were separated by more than six hours of football and three 1-0 defeats.
It was entirely apt that Liverpool's talisman scored. Benitez's team selection underlined Gerrard's importance to the team; he was afforded the free role often granted to the inconsistent Luis Garcia, demoted to the bench.
Instead, the ungainly Igor Biscan occupied the centre of midfield, a recall perhaps prompted by the bumpy pitch more suited for Saracens than Watford; several kicks for touch appeared to be remnants of the rugby match as well.
With Gerrard freed from the defensive shackles often imposed upon him and able him to elude the industrious pairing of Gavin Mahon and Brynjar Gunnarsson in the Watford midfield, he had the scope to play a more creative role.
Gerrard's burgeoning understanding with Fernando Morientes offered evidence that Liverpool's integration of the Spaniard is progressing well; they combined in a well-worked short corner routine before John Arne Riise miscued his shot wide.
The Gerrard's slide-rule pass provided an opportunity for the £6 million man, but Neil Cox, at full stretch, deflected his effort wide. It was not the only example of excellent defending from Cox, who later produced a fine cover tackle to deny Milan Baros.
The Czech striker was full of selfless running on the right, but found his chances limited. He and Morientes were both in space when Gerrard led a counter-attack, with the retreating Jermaine Darlington the only defender in place, but an unusually wasteful chance cost his side the opportunity of a first-half goal.
Like Gerrard, Neal Ardley had a roving brief. Following a quiet opening, his influence grew in the final minutes of the first half and, having beaten the Liverpool offside trap, Watford's premier crosser delivered an enticing ball that drew an important clearance from Steve Finnan.
Less well-timed was Finnan's challenge on Hameur Bouzza three minutes later, sending the French winger sprawling and his team-mates turning to referee Mike Riley. A second, less plausible penalty appeal followed in the second half but the introduction of two more strikers failed to produce a clear-cut chance for Watford.
At the other end, a towering but misdirected header meant Morientes' search for a first Liverpool goal goes on, while Biscan, on a rare foray forward, fired wide.
Then Gerrard eased Liverpool nerves with his ninth goal of the season. Benitez allowed his matchwinner to depart to a standing ovation, though the removal of Florent Sinama-Pongolle, stretchered off, will be a greater cause for concern.
Two of Gerrard's suitors, Manchester United or Chelsea, compete to face Liverpool in the final; both may have preferred if he had not shown why they value him so highly.