Benayoun leads underdog West Ham into FA Cup final

Rafa Benitez and Liverpool team face Alan Pardew's West Ham.

benayoun west ham 88 (photo credit: )
benayoun west ham 88
(photo credit: )
A year ago, Rafa Benitez was preparing his Liverpool team for the Champions League final. Alan Pardew's West Ham was playing in the promotion playoffs. Now they come face-to-face in the FA Cup final. Benitez refuses to accept his team is the favorite, even though the Reds finished the season with 11 wins in a row. "People say we are favorites but I don't see it like that," said the Spaniard, who has won Champions League, UEFA Cup and Spanish league titles and now is in his first FA Cup final. "In a final it's 50-50." Liverpool and West Ham meet at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, on Saturday in the 125th final of the world's oldest and most famous soccer cup competition. One of English soccer's traditional powerhouses with a record 18 league titles, Liverpool is chasing its seventh FA Cup triumph and first since 2001. West Ham, which has never won a league title, is bidding for its fourth FA Cup trophy but first since 1980. Benitez's team won a memorable fifth European Cup title by coming from 3-0 down at halftime against AC Milan last season. Although it never threatened Chelsea in the league title race this year, thirdplace Liverpool finished nine points behind the Blues, compared with 37 last season. West Ham finished sixth in the League Championship last season but came through to beat Preston in the playoff final and regain its place in the top flight. The Hammers, who finished 10th in the Premier League, will consider themselves almost equals to the Reds. "We've studied Liverpool closely, we know them pretty well and we'll get that knowledge into the players early," Pardew said. "I find it incredible that Rafael Benitez is, apparently, saying that we're the favorites to win the cup, because we're up against a technical team who are better than us. "Liverpool have got more experience and more international players, too. But everyone also knows that we attack teams and that we've got a big punch." West Ham has two Israelis on its roster, midfielder Yossi Benayoun and striker Yaniv Katan. While Benayoun is a regular starter and has scored five goals this season, Katan has appeared in only five matches since joining the club in January. Last weekend, Benayoun was partially responsible for Arsenal's jump over Tottenham to finish the Premier League season in fourth place. The national team player scored what turned out to be the match-winning goal in the 79th minute of West Ham's 2-1 victory over Spurs on the final day of the season. Liverpool will rely on the inspirational and dynamic Steven Gerrard in midfield to provide the chances for 2.05-meter striker Peter Crouch. It has a rock solid defense with centerbacks Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia in front of a reliable goalkeeper. Robbie Fowler can't take part in the final because he played in this season's competition for Manchester City. Benitez hopes that Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso recovers from knee ligament damage he picked up in Sunday's 3-1 victory at Portsmouth. Alonso missed last season's League Cup final loss to Chelsea because of a broken ankle. Pardew says that two of his key players, Dean Ashton and Matthew Etherington, may have to play through painful injuries. The powerfully built Ashton strained a hamstring against West Brom 11 days ago, and Pardew gives the striker a "60-40" chance of playing Saturday. Winger Etherington is recovering from an ankle injury sustained in training. For the first time, the cup will be presented to the winning captain by Prince William, who takes over on Saturday as president of the Football Association.