Rafa Benitez has warned his players that they shouldn’t expect too much of a rest this summer. When Benitez arrived at Anfield last summer he’s said to have been shocked at the poor levels of fitness in the players he inherited. Some players had been on international duty in Euro 2004, but even so the condition of the players overall concerned him.
So it’s time to make amends. Benitez has announced that pre-season training will start on June 27th this year. The league season ends on May 15th, but if the Reds do overcome Chelsea in the Champions League semis they’ll be playing in the final in Istanbul on May 25th. Four-and-a-half weeks to enjoy before coming back to Melwood for some hard work. There’ll be even less than four-and-a-half weeks for those on international duty on any of the summer tours – like England’s tour to America.
Liverpool’s injury crisis has confirmed to Benitez that pre-season work needed upgrading. As in previous years though there will be some time spent training overseas. Rafa explained: "We’ve told the players our idea is to start pre-season on June 27 at Melwood. We will spend some time there and then head for another country. We are thinking of heading to Switzerland for a training camp. We need to train harder at the start and change the culture of pre-season here. If we sign new players after June 27, they will have to start afresh"
Through having so many injuries this season, Benitez has been forced to play some of his squad more than he maybe would have liked. Liverpool’s defeat at Cardiff against Chelsea showed all the signs of an extremely tired team. Rafa doesn’t want this to be the case next season: "I want all the players to show the right mentality from the very beginning of pre-season. This will make it easier for them throughout the rest of the year. I’m sure you will see a fitter, stronger Liverpool next season."
Injured players are returning now slowly but surely, meaning that Benitez had the option to rest Steven Gerrard during the week. Resting players has been a luxury he’s rarely had this season: "When you see the kind of performance against Portsmouth, you can see what’s possible when you have a lot of options in your squad. It makes it a lot easier for me. I’m sure we would have performed a lot better throughout the season had we had the same number of players available."
Liverpool go into their last four games needing all twelve points – and two slip-ups from Everton – to be in with a chance of fourth place. So even if the Reds win all their league games in style,they still might not get that reward of a place in next season’s Champions League. The injury crisis is easing, just too late. Benitez said: "It’s true the season may be ending at the wrong time for us. Now we are starting to do things properly. The team has a lot more confidence, but the problem has been the same all season. When you only have a limited number of players in certain positions, and they must play every week, it’s harder to maintain the kind of tempo we want in our style of play."
One thing that shines through when listening to Rafa Benitez speak is his honesty. It’s very rarely that he’s blamed the injury situation for poor performances, and he comes across as someone who’ll give all his players a chance, whether they’re home-grown players, his own signings or inherited signings. Gerard Houllier was often criticised for holding grudges against players, turning minor training-ground arguments into situations serious enough to sell players at a loss. Houllier did his best for Liverpool, but was unable to take criticism, unable to see his own faults. Benitez seems willing to learn from his mistakes rather than try to cover them up or deflect blame elsewhere. He’s looking forward to next season already: "I have a lot of confidence for next season. I know the English league better and I know exactly the kind of players we need to improve. I also hope we won’t have as many injury problems next season as we’ve had this time." And for this season? Benitez says, "We will fight until the last game and we’re not giving up – our spirit is as good now as it’s been all season."
Meanwhile it’s not all positive news on the injury front. Despite having the option to rotate his central-midfielders, one player missing from that area is Didi Hamman. The German was injured during the derby last month. The injury was to knee ligaments and it was thought that he might have at least made it onto the bench for the Champions League semi-final second leg. That’s being played at Anfield on May 3rd, but there’s now no chance of Didi – or Harry Kewell – being available for the match. Liverpool have a number of players already on a caution in the Champions League, so any booking in the first leg could see players suspended for the Anfield return. Benitez confirmed the situation: "Neither Hamann nor Kewell will be ready to play in either game against Chelsea. Kewell is training, but it’s not possible for him to recover in time. Didi won’t join in with the other players until next week."
Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher and Steve Finnan are three of Liverpool’s outstanding performers this season who are all on a yellow card. Alonso may get a rest tomorrow – returning to the team ahead of schedule and playing so many full games so soon may have taken its toll according to Benitez: "We need to see about Xabi. He’s been spending a lot of time with the masseur undergoing treatment. We’re are thinking about resting him because he told me after the Portsmouth game he was tired."
Liverpool chose not to return to Melwood between their game in Portsmouth on Saturday and their game in London tomorrow. They trained on Thursday at Southampton’s training facility. Another player that’s not at full levels of fitness is Fernando Morientes. The Spaniard was signed from Real Madrid in the winter transfer window and had made very few appearances in the first half of the season. To move from rarely playing in Spain to trying to play regularly in the much faster and tougher Premiership hasn’t been easy. He did score against Portsmouth though and Benitez is hoping this will be a spur for him in these last four games: "Fernando scored an important goal which was important for him and the team. That will help his confidence. He’s another player who will benefit from starting pre-season with us early."
* Liverpool will already know the result from Everton’s home fixture before they kick-off at Selhurst Park. Everton are at home to Emile Heskey’s Birmingham in a 12.30 kick-off, with Liverpool kicking off at the old fashioned 3pm.