Rafael Benitez is being asked repeatedly why Liverpool are so much better in the league – in recent games at least – than they were a year ago in the Spanish manager’s first season. The manager says that the changes he’s made to the squad means it has a different make-up to it now, one that’s more suited to the English game. It’s also one that allows him to change things round before or even during a game: "The players that we have signed this year are ones that can play in the Premiership, which is different to last season. Now I have different types of players to come in and change the game. For example against Manchester City I took off Djibril Cisse who is a runner and brought on Harry Kewell, who gave us something different."
Team spirit at Anfield and Melwood is a clear improvement on how things were just a couple of seasons ago, and Benitez thinks that’s helping to bring about the improvements too: "I can do different things with the team, the players understand the different things we are talking about and they know each other better than last season. All these things show why we are stronger this year."
He’s also aware that he’s got one of the world’s best players at his disposal. Steven Gerrard finished third in the European Footballer of the Year award but Rafa believes he should have won it: "I was waiting, maybe expecting, to hear that Steven Gerrard would win the European Footballer of the Year award, but to be in the top three is still a great achievement. Maybe next time he will be the number one. I felt he could have won it this time, he played in the Champions League final in three different positions and was our inspiration to winning. He played well in every position and for me he is one of the best players in the world."
Rafa has chosen Gerrard to bring balance to the side by playing him wide-right, but Rafa feels that this is only part of the reason the team is now much improved on last term: "The team was already stronger than last season before I decided to use Steven on the right side. We decided to use the energy of Sissoko and the quality of Alonso, while also having the energy and quality of Steven. We are winning a lot of games now, because where beforehand we were difficult to beat, with Steven on the right we are now better in attack and better in defence. We have found the balance."
One other quality that Rafa feels Gerrard has is his tactical ability. Gerrard knows what his boss expects from him and when, as Rafa says: "He knows what I want from him in that position. He has freedom to come inside if he wants, but he knows the balance tactically for the team. Steven can play in all the positions. He is the captain and sometimes I talk with him about my ideas. He knows I am trying to find a right winger and he may have to play there for a short time, but as long as we are winning while he plays there I am sure he will be happy."
Whilst Gerrard is happy to be getting played in a new position for the sake of the team, comments attributed to Djibril Cisse at the start of the season suggested the French international didn’t like being played out of position. Cisse was also reported to be unhappy if he was then being left out of the team. On Saturday the player was cleary bemused at being taken off just after the restart, but Rafa says it was a decision based on the way he wanted to play the second-half, not based on how he feels Cisse had performed: "I understand a player being disappointed if I decide to change him. But I am only trying to do the best for our team. Harry Kewell came on and played well. If you decide to use a different player it is only because you feel it will be better for the team. Everybody needs to understand that."
Rafa says Cisse has no problem with the decision now he knows why it was made: "I have explained to Djibril why I made the change and he understands. He is training okay and I do not have problems with him. I must make decisions because I am the manager."
One of the biggest problems that faced Gerard Houllier during his time as manager was how he dealt with players who questioned his decisions. All kinds of rumours surrounded the French boss about him over-reacting to unhappiness from players. Rafa Benitez seems prepared to make the difficult decisions, but rather than writing off a player who claims to be unhappy he’s prepared to explain his views. Rather than losing a player for a fraction of what he cost, Rafa is trying to keep the relationship between player and club a positive one. It doesn’t mean he isn’t boss, it means that he makes the decisions but is prepared to stand by them: "I decide who is the best player for each game, and sometimes I need to change a player during a match. I decide."
Even Anthony Le Tallec hasn’t been written off by Rafa yet. Le Tallec was sent off on loan almost as soon as Rafa started his reign, after reports of a tantrum over his expectation to be a first-choice player for the club. Le Tallec found life at St Etienne even worse with him rarely being selected, and Rafa gave him another chance at Anfield after Christmas last season. Le Tallec got a good few chances in the side at a time when Liverpool’s injury problems were at a peak, and did well. Then after starting the early stages of the new season in Rafa’s side, during the Champions League qualifiers, he perhaps felt his time had come. This wasn’t to be the case, and he was sent on loan to Sunderland (tonight’s opponents). In one interview since he went up to the North East he was quoted as saying he thought his Anfield days were up, but not so according to Rafa. The Spaniard says: "If you remember, I decided to bring Le Tallec back from France where he was on loan with St Etienne and not playing, he then played for us in the Champions League. He has been given chances but if you want to play every game for Liverpool then it is not easy. I do not have problems with Le Tallec, he is progressing well at Sunderland and that was the idea. To give him the opportunity to play a lot of games. He is still an option, I watched him play for France Under-21s against England recently and he did really well."
Le Tallec’s is one player that would maybe benefit from the work done on the field by Peter Crouch. Again Rafa is having to talk about Crouch’s lack of goals, all the more so now that someone has noticed he’s 90 minutes away from going 24 hours without a goal. Benitez says of the England player: "He is a very, very important player for me and it has been shown in our current run. He keeps the ball, gives it to team-mates and gives us so many alternatives. He is so important to us. I hear this discussed every week, but that is the reason I continue to give him my support and explain what he does for us."
Liverpool’s move to bring Benfica’s Simao Sabrosa to Anfield is certainly still on, but just like in the summer with the attempts to bring Michael Owen to Anfield there’s a gap between the valuations the two clubs involved have put on the player. In the summer Liverpool had agreed terms with the Portuguese international after Benfica gave Liverpool permission to speak to him. Only when the clubs spoke again to finalise their own deal did the valuation seem to increase substantially. He scored 15 goals last season, and can play as a striker or as a wide player – his most likely position at Anfield – and Liverpool are still working on bringing him to England.
According to Benfica, he’s worth around €17.5m (around £12m). Liverpool though have reportedly only bid around €11.5m (£8million). President of Benfica, Luis Filipe Vieira says that they’ll be glad to let the player go, just as soon as Liverpool match their valuation: "We know that we will have to sell him, it is just a question of price. If Liverpool had come up with 17.5million, then he would already have gone."
The best way for the media to find that missing £4million is to sell a player for the Reds, and who better than Djibril Cisse? Marseille are again being linked with a January move for the player, despite Rafa’s assurances that the player is happy at the club.