Rafael Benitez spoke today of his delight at having Xabi Alonso fit and well again after a lengthy absence. With the news that Steven Gerrard has now been declared fit for tomorrow’s Premiership clash against Spurs, Rafael gets a rare opportunity to play two of Europe’s best midfielders in the same team.
Rafa spoke today about why he feels that Xabi is able to adapt to playing in English Football: "People told me when I came to this country that you need to have lots of hard, physical players to succeed in English football. But when I look at the best players in the history of the Premiership or at the top of the English game, the most influential are those with the most skill. You have Dalglish who inspired the great Liverpool side, Cantona at Manchester United, Zola at Chelsea and Bergkamp who was crucial at the start of Arsenal’s success. These are players who rely on skill more than physical play."
He went on: "For me, Xabi is the kind of player who can come into their category. Of course, you always need good players around someone like this which is why it’s a shame we’ve had few opportunities to have Xabi and Steven Gerrard playing with each other. With both of them, we could do a lot better than we are."
Liverpool’s outstanding performances in the Champions League have been tempered with inconistent performances in the league. Rafa thinks Alonso’s absence has been a factor in this: "It was a pity we lost Xabi for three months because if he’d been playing for the whole season, I’m sure we’d have more points. He makes our team play well. He is a youngster with the mentality of an experienced player. Football has been his life because of his family and he analyses the game as well as he plays it."
Benitez wants players who can pass the ball well – the type of player that always brought success to Liverpool: "When Xabi plays we pass the ball a lot better. Our vision is to create a Liverpool team which passes the ball well across all sides of the pitch, and this is something which Xabi does very well. When we joined Liverpool, Xabi and Luis Garcia were the players we knew we wanted to bring to the club with us."
Alonso was forced onto the sidelines for the first three-and-a-half months of this year thanks to a Frank Lampard foul that left him with a broken ankle. Whilst Lampard was being glorified by the media and getting nominated for a PFA award, Alonso was trying to recover from the fracture caused by the Chelsea player. Now Alonso has a chance to get revenge on Lampard – by helping to knock Chelsea out of the Champions League.