Liverpool’s board have apologised to manager Rafael Benítez about the anonymous comments from a cowardly board member on Friday, comments which many feared would drive Rafa out.
For now at least, Rafa isn’t going to let this single idiot get to him. How much of an idiot he is has a little more proof applied when you realise that despite it being clear to all who he is, he’s still not had the guts to admit it. A cowardly idiot.
Rafa says that he’s not considering a future elsewhere, he wants to succeed at Anfield: “People asked me if I was thinking about my future, but when I decided to come here and renew my contract when other clubs were asking about me, it was the same situation as now. My determination remains to win lots of trophies here and build a strong team for the future. When you hear people talk about the value of my squad, it's triple what it was when we arrived. It's clear we have a better team and I'm really happy here. When you hear the support on Saturday, it means I'm in the right place.”
The Liverpool supporters were determined to show the man that brought them the Champions League in his first season and the FA Cup in his second that they supported him. He knows he’s got the same levels of support from the majority of the board too: “I didn't speak to the chairman on Saturday, but I know he is supporting me and I say to the chairman, Rick Parry and the board thank you because it's good to hear things like this. I know they were really worried about what happened, but I know I have their support. They are happy with the way we are working.”
The comments on Friday came at a point when the press were already having a field day at Rafa’s expense, following that defeat at Old Trafford and the poor form away from home all season. Stats are always available to support a theory and the rotation one hits a century tonight if he does – as expected – make changes. The midweek win against Reading was important for morale, but the league win even more so. It meant critics had to spend a weekend away from criticism and had to either shut up or make stories up. Rafa says the win on Saturday was sweeter in the wake of all of this criticism: “It was one of our best performances of the season, but in this case it was satisfying because people have been talking and talking. If you play well, score goals and see that kind of commitment you must be happy. We already had a good record at home, which people have forgotten because of our form away.”
The irony about all of this criticism over rotation is that in many games Rafa’s rotation has been forced on him. Not always, but often. Where it’s not been enforced it’s often been part of a move to get some of the new signings used to life in the English game. Tonight’s match against Bordeaux might mean a return for Craig Bellamy, Fabio Aurelio or Mark Gonzalez who’ve all been out injured, but there are slight doubts about the fitness of Steven Gerrard and Momo Sissoko who both have minor ankle knocks which were sustained on Saturday in that game against Villa.
Those are the injury worries, Rafa also likes to make sure that his players are fit enough to take the field and so soon after that league game could well prove to be too soon for some. The reasons for rotation tonight are all good ones – but that won’t stop the TV pundits from having a dig, safe in their studios and TV gantries immune from criticism about their performances.
Rafa will be as worried about Momo’s fitness as he is about Gerrard’s. He said of the hard-working midfielder: “Momo is as important as Steven, because he can play in the middle and work and cover when Steven is attacking from different avenues. Momo can stop players and that is the balance we are looking for. Look at our left-back, for example. If Gerrard is in front of him on the left and then goes inside that means the opposing full-back has to decide whether to go with him or to stay out wide. Whatever he does he has a problem. Steven is then attacking or if he goes with him, it leaves space for our full-back to attack.”
He went on: “Momo provides the opportunity for Steven to attack with confidence that there is cover. It is a balance that a big team needs. Momo was always trying to improve when he was with me at Valencia. He has done so well, he arrived as a very young man in Spain speaking only French and had to learn the language, then a couple of seasons later he has arrived at Liverpool and has to learn English. This is not easy for anyone, certainly not someone so young.”
Clearly one of Rafa’s best signings – and still only 21 – the Malian international got more praise from Rafa: “I am very pleased with him because he has been an impressive person on and off the pitch. He has become so important for us. He gives us a physical power that is vital in top-class football these days.”
Many of Sunday’s papers carried a story about a rift between Rafa and Gerrard. The story was, it seems, put about by a former Manchester United player with a reputation he’s probably not proud of. That the newspapers fell for it was bad enough, but as long as people keep buying their lies they’ll never stop. Gerrard’s response when asked about them was something you wouldn’t normally hear in these days of diplomatic answers. At last, Gerrard has said what he thinks: “I've never read so much bo**ocks,” he said.
Rafa explained his feelings about Gerrard and how wrong the press were on Sunday and he continued to talk about how important Steven was to the team: “Steve was trying to be always closer to the ball and looked happier. When the team is playing well people like to play football. I’m sure Steve will score a good number of goals this season and it’s important that we have a number of players who can score as we have lots of options. If Gerrard, Xabi, Carra, Hyypia and Pepe play well then all the others play well.”
Rafa also had some kind words for new signing Dirk Kuyt. He scored in front of his father at Anfield, Mr Kuyt senior’s first visit to Anfield since the transfer. He’s been unwell after being diagnosed with cancer and only three weeks ago had surgery to save his life. Everyone was delighted for Dirk to score in those circumstances, including the manager: “It was great for Dirk to score and it was really important for his dad to be here. He’s his hero. It’s difficult to be in that situation and be as strong as he is.”