Rafa on Barca, Blades and Mascherano debut

Rafael Benítez is still forced to field questions which have been asked with the alleged bust-up between John Arne Riise and Craig Bellamy in mind. Both players have said that it’s all behind them now, with Bellamy hinting that it was blown out of proportion. Rafa told Spanish radio that he was also happy to see the incidents put to rest, saying that some players even offered to pay higher fines than he’d recommended. If the players are happy it’s over, and Rafa’s happy it’s over – well it’s over.

Speaking to the British media ahead of today’s visit of Sheffield United, Rafa explained how short-lived the impact of “that problem” actually was: “During the training, the atmosphere between the players was perfect. We had that problem, but afterwards the players said they knew they had made a mistake and wanted to put it right. They knew they had to go forward before during and after the game. They were all so good – Craig Bellamy, all of them.”

Bellamy’s form was so good in the Nou Camp that perhaps he should have a bust-up every week. Rafa said that there were no lingering problems with Bellamy though: “I do not like to talk only about him; all of them were good and wanted to forget what had happened and show people that the atmosphere inside the club was good. Watching the replays, when Bellamy passed to Riise and he scored, everyone was enjoying it together; they were not leaving some out.”

Rafa says that the training camp in Portugal had been a success, and
that if anything the incidents and the accompanying media attention
gave them an even bigger incentive to remain focussed on the job ahead:
“In the training camp, the atmosphere amongst the players was
fantastic. After the incident, they were still really focused – maybe a
bit more than before because so many people were talking about them.”

He went on: “Then after such a good result in Barcelona, the atmosphere
is still very good. All you can do is keep the players as happy. I do
not think what happened made them play better, although maybe some
players felt, 'OK, I need to do my best'. But the players were ready
for the game. They were thinking about it right from the moment they
ended the previous game at Newcastle.”

Although the fans are still celebrating one of our best results in many
years of good European results, the manager is determined that the
players will keep their feet on the ground: “We are now in a good
position, but we must be positive and careful because Barcelona are a
good team and especially good on the counter-attack.”

And it’s back to reality again with the visit of one of the clubs to
have taken points off Liverpool this season. Rafa feels that his
players will not be as well-prepared as he would like for today’s
league match, but of course knows that a win is vital: “Now we have
Sheffield United, and I must work with the players mentally, because
physically we will not be quite ready because after European games
there is travelling and not always time to sleep. You cannot train
properly with just two days, but we must be ready and we must make sure
we finish as high as possible.”

Rafa’s squad rotation policy is looking set to play a part today too:
“We need to use the right players now, to make up for the physical
problems with fresh players. We have two league games now before
Barcelona so we must make sure we do the job right in them.”
Back to that historic win in midweek, Rafa admitted he was delighted
that his players had thrown egg into the faces of those who had written
them off for this game. After the Arsenal defeats in January, when
Liverpool had seen a rusty Jerzy Dudek let in just about every shot he
faced, Sky TV’s presenter and pundit mocked Liverpool in a most
unprofessional manner. Richard Keys and Paul Merson were literally
laughing that night at the possibility Liverpool could beat Barcelona,
and Keys was still speaking about the tie in the same smug way
pre-match on Wednesday, also getting back onto his
Gerrard-must-be-really-unhappy-on-the-right soap box. The Spanish media
also wrote off the Reds, and that made the victory sweeter for Rafa: “I
have been really pleased with this week, but you must be calm when you
win games like we have just done. You must not get too carried away.
When the draw was made, the Spanish media said, 'Liverpool has no
chance,' – they felt the difference between both teams was large. Now,
they are surprised and they felt Liverpool were really good.”

He went on: “Now we need to wait. We are happy but we must be aware
that Barcelona can play well away. Now after playing in the Nou Camp,
we have to return to the Premiership. It is different, and we know that
if we want to finish in the top four we must concentrate immediately on
the differences. You must enjoy beating a top side but you must be
ready to face any side. If you are not ready, they will punish you.”

One of Liverpool’s problems, even before Rafa came, has been the
dropping of points against teams they should be beating convincingly.
On paper there’s no doubt at all that Liverpool will win today, but in
reality that’s quite possibly not going to be the case. For the Blades
this is a cup final, this game is as big to them as the Barca game was
to Liverpool. Rafa was quick to pay today’s opponents a compliment:
“Sheffield United have done well. The experts may not have agreed, but
why should we listen to the experts. Talking too early in football is a
mistake. People said to me before we played Barcelona, who had player
problems the week before we had our problems, who did I feel would be
in the worst position? You must wait to decide such things. Only
afterwards can you say things. If you talk too easily and too soon,
things change.”

Rafa’s already spoken about team spirit so much this week it’s clear he
feels it’s an important quality for any squad, and he says it’s
something that will make Neil Warnock’s side tough visitors today: “As
with Sheffield United, they have good team spirit, and sometimes you
need that as much as better ability.”

Rafa is expected to give Javier Mascherano his long-awaited debut.
Signed in the January transfer window after a long delay waiting for
FIFA to authorise the loan deal, the player was then kept on the
sidelines as the Premier League investigated the ownership of the
player from when West Ham signed him in the summer. Rafa will reveal
his team later in the day, but admitted that “The Chief” would be one
of his “possibilities” today: “He's in the squad and he will have
possibilities. We have to see about the physical condition of the
players. When you ask them if they are fit, they will all say, ‘Yes’. I
need to take a look at each one. Javier is training really hard. It's
not been easy for him; he's a young player, but he's happy now and he's
desperate to play.”
Rafa rates Mascherano highly: “I think he can do well – he has the game
intelligence we are looking for. Also, he can play with players with
quality like Zenden, Sissoko, Alonso and Gerrard – I think this can be
a help to him. If you had an English player in the national team at the
age of 22, you'd all be saying he is a very good player. Mascherano has
22 caps for Argentina and he is only 22. For me, that shows the
mentality, character, quality and personality of this player.”