Liverpool’s win over West Ham at Anfield yesterday was achieved with a performance more in keeping with that of European Champions. Liverpool created chances and fought to keep possession, showing great endeavour in all areas of the field. In their last two games Liverpool have been beaten in matches where they were guilty of underperforming for enough of the game to give their opponents the upper-hand. Against Fulham in the league last weekend Liverpool had to fight for an equaliser in the second-half, and were kept out thanks to good work from ex-Red Tony Warner. It was the fact they had underperformed so much in the first-half that meant Liverpool were behind, and that led to Rafa Benitez laying down the law. On Tuesday night the team included some of the squad’s fringe players and went out of the Carling Cup. The performance was poor enough for Reds skipper Steven Gerrard to tell the world it wasn’t good enough.
The perception of Liverpool’s poor performances in domestic competition is rooted in their displays last season. Finishing so far from the top of the Premiership and knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round by Burnley, Liverpool’s reputation has been tarnished. The fact that they reached last season’s Carling Cup final is rarely mentioned, and so the contrast between their European highs and domestic lows is underlined all the more. Some commentators even try to claim that the European Cup is fairly unimportant, and easier to win due to its different format, rather than admit that Liverpool achieved so much in winning it for the fifth time last season.
The upshot of this is that some are even claiming that Rafa is no longer the man for the job. Despite the fact that all summer Rafa told the world’s press that he wanted to fill two positions in the side more than any other, the moves did not happen and so Liverpool were left without the wingers for to service the strikers, and central defenders to share the burden carried by Carragher and Hyypia. Was Rafa to blame for the failure to bring anyone in? Unlikely – he tells the money men at Anfield who he’d like to bring in, and he is no doubt involved in some of the actual discussions with the players themselves – but he isn’t the one that agrees the fees and signs the cheques.
Rafa certainly brought one player to Anfield that other Premiership bosses would love to be able to pick – Xabi Alonso. Alonso is one of the best passers in the Premiership right now, and yesterday chose to pass rather than smash the ball into the net – from 25 yards – to open the scoring at Anfield. He speaks himself about being unsure where the problems are coming from in the league, and says that the players made a vow to sort out the results in the league: “I don’t know what happens to us when we play in the league. It’s like a curse. The players are to blame and I take my part in that. We’ve made a pact to sort out our league form.”
As for comments about Rafa’s future, Xabi is amazed anyone could question it: “Benitez picks the team, but he can’t go out on to the pitch and score the goals. Talk about the manager’s position is crazy. We just ask for a bit more time and patience. I’m convinced the results will come.”
Xabi has the least work to do of most Reds players in order to prove himself to the fans, but he knows that wearing the Red shirt is an honour not to be taken lightly: “You have to be calm. We are a big club and if you have a bad performance then you know you will be criticised. It is best to concentrate on improving and not to bother with what is written about you – but we all care. We all feel the disappointment; we all wear the shirt and know what that means. That is why we are all committed to the club and trying to do things as well as possible and to climb the table.”
Perhaps Xabi has been party to stinging words aimed at other Reds players by the likes of Gerrard and Carragher, as he mentions again the significance of that Red shirt: “It is my second season here but I really feel the pride of wearing a Liverpool shirt, I am fully committed to the club. Always there is something to prove. When situations like this arise you always have to show you are a good team, you understand that people will criticise and you accept it.”
A win for Liverpool on Tuesday night at home to Anderlecht would see the Reds in the last 16 of the Champions League, and confidence is increased again now after yesterday’s performance: “After this win everyone is feeling better and we are aiming to win on Tuesday in the Champions League, and that will be two very important victories and will hopefully change peoples’ opinion about us.”
The second goal in yesterday’s win came from Dutch star Bolo Zenden, who came off the bench and looked lively. It was his first goal for Liverpool and well taken – in front of the Kop. Sitting on the bench allowed him to see just how much West Ham were trying to be positive, and he was pleased to get that first goal: “You must give them credit for coming here and trying, too many sides just put everyone across the box and try to stop you getting a goal while hoping to grab something on the counter. That was a big boost for our confidence and I was pleased to get my first goal. We needed that second goal to finish the game off – we created a lot of chances but again couldn’t convert them into goals. It was special to get my first in front of the Kop, it was good for me and good to settle the match that way.”
Again Zenden’s words show that Liverpool’s players have been stung by the criticism that’s come their way: “The critics labelled us with the tag that we can’t do it in the domestic league and we are only good in Europe. It is up to the players to make sure that doesn’t happen – by the end of the week we could be in the last 16 of the Champions League. That’s how quickly things can be turned around – if we get a run now and wins under our belts, things will look a lot different in a few weeks time."