Rafael Benitez has left the door open for his players to prove themselves before the summer.
Benitez has been unfortunate in the luck he’s received in terms of injuries to his squad. A season that started with the sale of Michael Owen has now reached a point where none of Liverpool’s strikers are now available – Milan Baros is the only fit striker at the club, and is now suspended for three matches.
Changes to the squad have been subtle more than sweeping so far. Stephane Henchoz was part of the partnership which saw Liverpool win the treble under Houllier, but under Benitez has not been fancied, and has now left the club. Djimi Traore was set to be sold – perhaps more by the board than by the manager – yet was reprieved and made numerous appearances before suffering injury. Steve Finnan was linked with a move away from Anfield, but was reluctant to go (some say due to wage demands) – and has improved immensely this season, showing the form that Liverpool fans believed they would get.
A large part of Liverpool’s squad are being paid wages which they’ll struggle to match elsewhere due to their performances for Liverpool not being at a level that fits those contracts. Some of these have been loaned out to cut costs – El Hadji Douiff and Bruno Cheyrou for example – and others have stayed behind to collect their wages. These contracts are coming to an end in many cases and it’s now time for some of these players to prove their worth.
Benitez has brought the best out of players like Finnan, Carragher and Riise – all players who weren’t bad under Houllier, but have all stepped up a level.
Benitez wants all the remaining fit players to show what they’re made of in the remaining games of the season. If they do this then the door might not be closing behind them: "This season is about improving the level of the team. We need to keep working hard and working properly and then we can improve all the time. In the summer we will look for different things and then we will make our decisions, that is normal. For me the most important thing now is that a player tries hard and gives his best. If they do that then I cannot ask for anything more as a manager."
Didi Hamman was a vital member of the Liverpool squad under Houllier, protecting the defence and almost playing as an extra centre-back. Benitez brought Xabi Alonso over from Spain to play alongside Gerrard in a more positive way of playing, but Alonso had his leg broken by Frank Lampard meaning Hamman has made more appearances than he may have hoped for. Hamman himself is now injured just as Alonso is getting close to a return, and his contract talks are said to be on hold. Talks are expected to resume before the end of the season, but Bolton are reported to be interested in taking Hamman over to the Reebok stadium. Whilst Igor Biscan has become Anfield’s latest cult hero, almost as much as Erik Meijer, the Croatian is disappointed that he isn’t making more appearances and is looking to move away when his contract expires in the summer.
* Steven Gerrard has recovered from a knock received in the International for England against Northern Ireland according to England boss Sven Goran Ericsson, who names an unchanged team for Wednesday’s match at St James’ Park against Azerbaijan.