Liverpool’s visit to the Reebok stadium this lunchtime sees the Reds facing the team Rafa probably likes the least out of all those he’s faced in his time in this country. He’d not been in charge of the Reds long when he took his side to Bolton only to see them kicked off the park by a side he felt were more interested in kicking chunks out of his players than actually kicking the ball.
Liverpool lost that game, and only managed a draw the next year. This time round Rafa is sending his players out prepared for the worst as he aims to make it third time lucky at that ground. As well as preparing his players for the worst he’s asking today’s referee, Phil Dowd, to be ready to stop any attempts at stretching the rules of the game from the Trotters.
Rafa clearly loves his job, but he finds it hard to understand how Bolton got away with their methods against his sides two season running. He’s certainly got his players read for it, and whatever team he chooses you can expect it to include some of his tougher players: “I enjoy preparing my team for every game, but against Bolton you need to think about different things, not just winning the ball and keeping possession. In the end it is down to the players and how they face the task. I have analysed the goals we conceded there and some of things I saw surprised me. We must maintain our confidence. The first season was a surprise, but last season we were much better, but it will still be a difficult game.”
His plans seem to revolve around making sure that they aren’t kicked off the park whilst trying to take control of the game and playing their own brand of exciting flowing football: “It will be physical and we must match that, and then I hope we will be able to play our own style of football.”
As for tough players, he’s singled out a striker who’s well-used to being kicked and a midfielder who seems able to keep going regardless of how often he’s hacked in the legs by an opponent: “You handle it with strong character. This time we have a different sort of player -Peter Crouch, Momo Sissoko; people who can help us approach the game a different way. I am concentrating on winning our first away game of the season. But I know it will be a different sort of game.”
Rafa’s also worked out who Bolton remind him of: “They play a lot of long ball and fight for the ‘second ball’ and we must match that. It was not a surprise when I came to England and saw Bolton's style of football. In Spain we had seen plenty of Wimbledon games; they were very famous. So watching them meant we understood the way of some English clubs. It is simple. A long ball and then if you have luck you can win possession from the 'second ball'. It is as simple as that.”
Rafa’s dislike of the hoof and hope tactics is the dislike of someone who knows how the game should be played. Playing the Bolton way is going to bring success to teams, but the final factor in whether they will get success is that their luck must be in: “It is not tactical, sometimes it is just luck. You can be tall and strong and win the ball in the air, but after that it is luck.”
His message to the referee was quite simple: “For me I only want the referee to protect the people who want to play football. Goalkeepers are put under pressure. The first goal we conceded there last season was a foul on Pepe Reina. For me the rules are the same all over the world but sometimes the interpretation here is different. Referees have had a meeting after the first two weeks of the season to decide how things can be improved, and it is their duty to protect good players. It is always a big job for referees but we are confident playing against Bolton and if we cannot play our own football we must make sure we are as physical as they are.”
The words from Rafa could backfire of course, but he desperately wants those three points today: “We know we have not won away in the league this season and Bolton will be a difficult game, but I hope we can get our first away win there. The first time for me there it was very difficult and we lost. But last season we got a draw and fought hard. I hope this time around we can do even better. We always must improve on what we have done in the past.”
Liverpool have had three home games in a row, all victories, and he wants to carry this form on today. Of course this is the last game for a while as once again international fixtures interrupt the real stuff, so a win today is even more important: “Playing Bolton away is a big test, but if we can win there it will be a boost for us after winning our last three home games. We have a lot of respect for Bolton and we know it will be a very difficult day. When you analyse the two games we have played at the Reebok since I took over it is easy to see why we have had problems.”
One player who might find himself kept out of the starting eleven is Fabio Aurelio, simply because the physical nature of today’s game might not be something he’s ready for yet. The Brazilian admits that he’s already finding the game much tougher than he’s used to but says he’ll soon be up to speed: “I'm still adapting to the English style. It's much more physical and harder than I've been used to in either Spain or Brazil. Little by little I'm improving and feeling more comfortable within the group and on the pitch. I hope to reach my top level as soon as possible, but I know I haven't got there yet.”
Aurelio looked back on Wednesday’s win over Galatasaray and said that was a quite difficult match too, especially when the Turkish side started throwing everyone forward: “I had to concentrate a lot because there were a lot of midfielders attacking us and getting into the box. When I tried to cover players moving into the middle, it was a problem because it left a lot of space for their wingers. I know we conceded two goals, but overall I think we do have more solidity now than we had a few weeks ago. We're doing everything we need to in order to win three points.”
He continued: “Yes, we could have done without the tension at the end of the game in midweek, but we still did what we had to do to win, and we could also have scored more goals. We have far more confidence in everything we do, and we're also creating a lot of chances, which is the most difficult thing in football. We're playing much better now, but this is still the beginning of the season and there's lots of work to do.”
Hopefully his words will be true today too: “What's important is that we are getting the points when we need them.” Even though he’s likely to be replaced by John Arne Riise today he’ll still be working hard on improving in training and when he’s selected: “If you want to reach important targets, and win big trophies, you have to strive for perfection and there's still some way to go before we get that.”