Just over a week ago Harry Kewell said he owed a lot to the manager of Liverpool and all of their fans after they had all stuck by him through his never-ending injury troubles: “I owe a lot to the manager for sticking by me when everyone else was giving me stick. I want to pay him back for that. The Liverpool fans have probably been the most frustrated with me, and I want to pay them back as well – so it’s great to hear them behind me.” Without wishing to tempt fate, those troubles maybe have come to an end now and as a result Kewell is playing probably the best football he’s every played in a Red shirt. He got the winner in Saturday’s victory over Spurs with the sort of volley that a fully-fit Kewell will probably get a lot more of. It’s not just fitness that the player had been lacking, it was confidence. The goal he scored proved that he’s got that confidence back.
Next up for Liverpool is a trip to Old Trafford as the Reds take on one of the teams Kewell snubbed to become a player for the team he supported as a kid. Alex Ferguson offered Kewell more money to join him at United, but Kewell was uninterested once he new the Reds were in for him. Manchester United lost at the weekend, embarrassed in a 3-1 derby defeat by City, with Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler getting the third.
Kewell’s goal on Saturday came from a brilliant cross by Liverpool full-back Steve Finnan. For Finnan the clash at Old Trafford is already a big game, but thanks to the United defeat Liverpool have moved even closer to their rivals and have games in hand. Speaking to Liverpool’s official website, the Irish international said: “It’s set up nicely now – we knew before Saturday’s game that they’d lost and that gave us a bit of a boost because we knew if we won then we’d get to within a point of them and still have the two games in hand.”
The two sides played out a goalless draw earlier in the season, at a time when Liverpool were not yet up to speed the way they have been recently. If the Liverpool team that plays this weekend plays to its full ability against a team that plays the way United did on Saturday then Liverpool will get the three points. This match is like another derby though, and these games don’t always go with form. Finnan knows what Liverpool have to do – their best: “Now we have to go there and play as well as we can. It’s always one of the biggest fixtures of the season for the club and the fans and we’re sure we can get something from the match. There’s no reason why we can’t win and go into second place. That’ll be our aim.”
Many critics were waiting desperately to see Liverpool lose on Saturday. Tottenham were the highest-placed side they’d faced since their current run of form began, and coupled with the never-ending threat of fatigue setting in after an already long season it looked like a defeat was on the cards. That didn’t happen though; Liverpool worked hard and took control of the game. There were two world-class goalkeepers on the pitch on Saturday, but despite a couple of good saves from Pepe Reina it was Spurs’ Paul Robinson that was busiest. Finnan was fairly diplomatic though and accepted that this wasn’t an easy game: “Obviously we had to work hard to get the victory over Tottenham because they’re a good side and they gave us one of our toughest tests so far this season at Anfield. Picking up three points gives us a bit of breathing space over them now. It was a fairly even game with both sides having chances, but we got the important goal and we’re delighted with the victory.”
Finnan was clearly delighted to see Harry get his name on the scoresheet for the first time in 13 months: “It was a great strike from Harry and we’re all really pleased for him. He’s been playing really well since he came back from injury and has gone close to scoring on a few occasions. He’s a great outlet for the team. He has pace, can get past defenders, get good crosses in and also score goals himself. Having him back fit and on top form is a great boost for us.”
Rafa Benítez wanted to praise Finnan himself after seeing him perform yet again to the standard the Spaniard wants. For Rafa it is Finnan’s consistency that benefits the club so much: “Finnan is a player who will always play at a consistent level. He will be seven, eight, nine or even ten out of ten every week. This is really important for the team. Some players find a good level for individual games, but don’t do the same every week. Finnan does it for a whole season.”
Finnan has made the right-back spot his own, but until this month there was no real cover for him. Rafa says the new arrival will ensure Finnan continues to maintain that consistency: “The added competitiveness of Jan Kromkamp will also be good for him and the team and help him maintain his current level.”
Speaking immediately after Saturday’s match, Rafa said he’d not looked at the fact Liverpool had moved four points ahead of Spurs in the table, nor that they were now just a point behind United with two games in hand: “I don’t like to look at the table yet – what’s important for me is three points against a very good team. I am not worried about the table. I’m thinking about how to win each game and in a few hours I will start thinking about Manchester United.”
Rafa continued: “If you want to win something we must play all the best teams. I’m not thinking about second place. It’s about winning matches and being capable of winning lots of matches.” Rafa was also pleased with how his team adapted their play to counter the opposition’s tactics and exploit their weaknesses: “The team is improving. We were a serious team today because it was difficult to play through the middle, so we worked it wide. That was encouraging, but the team needs to be consistent, strong and serious. We are in a better position now because we have one game every week, so we can train and prepare players well.”
Rafa was named manager of the month for the second month in succession last week, and maybe he’ll need a third in a row before he’ll be happy, as he said: “We are playing well and winning games, so we will see at the end of the month where we are. I don’t know whether we’re the second best team in the Premiership, but I like the way the team is improving and playing at the moment.”
Current Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher was delighted to see former star Fowler get the winner over the Mancs at the weekend: “Robbie certainly did us a favour. It’s a massive game for us next week. We are both doing our best to keep in touch with Chelsea at the top.” Carra said United are aiming for the same target this season now: “Their manager said they want to be the closest team to Chelsea and that is our aim as well, so we are thankful to Robbie and the Manchester City boys for doing us a good turn.” Like Finnan, Carra talked about how United’s defeat gave the Reds an extra boost: “We all knew what had happened at City and it did give us all an extra lift against Tottenham.”
Carra also wants the Reds to improve on last season’s fixture at United’s ground: “There’s a great tradition to our fixture with United. We had a good record at Old Trafford under Gerard Houllier. We were very disappointed with the way we played there last season, so we’re all desperate to rectify that.”