Rafa: Lay off Momo

Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez has been listening to some knee-jerk criticism thrown at young midfielder Momo Sissoko and has asked that the critics blame him instead.

Momo was badly injured earlier in the season, forced to undergo surgery on a dislocated shoulder. His performances since he returned haven’t been of the high standards fans had come to expect from him, and so he’s now become one of the victims of the phone-in moaners’ rants.

On Wednesday night Rafa picked a side with a 4-4-1-1 formation, playing Steven Gerrard just behind a lone striker, and asking Momo to play a slightly different role than he’s used to alongside Javier Mascherano. Rafa said this was nothing more than a trial run of a different system, and it didn’t work out that night because of the way ‘Boro were playing: “I knew that Momo was having some problems in that position on Wednesday, but that was more my fault than his fault.”

Rafa explained: “I said to him ‘play here and try to do your best’ because I wanted to play a different system, but he had problems because the other team was compact and very narrow. They constricted the space between the lines and for him to play in this position was a big problem, but I wanted to check out another system.”

So, taking the blame himself, Rafa also pointed out that Momo is much
younger than people seem to realise: “It was more my fault than his,
but at the end of the day people must remember he is 22-years-old and
has done a very good job, a fantastic job, for two seasons and we must
support him.”

He continued: “He sometimes needs an arm around him because he loses
confidence, but never because he has stopped working. I spoke to him on
Thursday and I said ‘I don’t have any problems. Keep working. I have a
lot of confidence in you.’”

A goalless draw against Manchester City followed by a goalless
first-half against ‘Boro means that the more fickle supporters are
ready to stick the knife in to those working for the club they claim to
support. Some have even suggested that Rafa’s future should be
reconsidered if he fails to win the Champions League this season. It’s
not just the occasional supporter who gets on the boss’s back a little
too quickly, it’s former players too. But Rafa tells his players that
the majority of people who matter – the supporters – appreciate players
who try their best and work at success: “I said I know there are former
players and people here in Liverpool who are talking, but I say if you
work hard the supporters will be with you. If you make mistakes keep
working and keep doing the same things and the people will be with you.
Everybody knows what Momo Sissoko gives to us. He works really hard and
he was a key player for us against Barcelona and lots of other games.”

There is also perhaps a hint that Rafa won’t select a side with both
Momo and Mascherano in at the same time again: “He is a player who can
give freedom to Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, but we must be patient
with him. If a player is not working hard, okay you can criticise him.
He is working really hard and he has also played very well after a bad
injury, so I say we must be calm and support the player.”

Long term Rafa sees a big future for the player he saved from a move to
Goodison: “He is a young player and he will have maybe eight or 10
years at this level. Momo is a very good worker and he needs to be more
confident with the ball. He’s a professional player and he wants to do
the best every time.”

Rafa explained why he feels Momo may look a little less assured
compared to Argentinean international Mascherano: “The problem now is
we have another very good player in Mascherano and you can see the
difference. Mascherano is also 22, but he has 20 caps for Argentina so
he has experience. He can analyse and read the game and play the
football that you need. Momo is a worker. Physically, he is really
good, but maybe he will need one or two more years to have the same
experience that Mascherano has now.”

Rafa signed Momo from his former club Valencia after Everton boss David
Moyes let slip he’d got a deal sewn up for him. It seemed Rafa was
unaware the Spanish side were prepared to sell until that point, but he
soon put in a bigger offer and Momo joined the Reds. Moyes was heavily
criticised by the Everton fans for showing his hand on that deal,
especially when Momo proved what a good buy he’d been. Rafa knows he’s
not turned into a poor signing overnight: “I have known him since he
arrived at Valencia as an 18-year-old. People thought he was more
experienced than he was even then. The problem for Momo has been the
injury. Then, when he recovered, Mascherano was playing well. You must
be very consistent to get in ahead of Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and
Javier Mascherano, and he is still a very young player.”