Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez will spend the next two weeks working out why Liverpool’s performances have dipped in the past few games. The Reds are still unbeaten in the league and in touch of the top of the table, but have only taken six points from their last four games. They’ve also dropped five points from their two Champions League matches.
Talk of a crisis is of course laughable, but Rafa will be studying the evidence to try and ensure the dent in the club’s title hopes stays as nothing more than a minor blip. The majority of his squad are away on international duty, although some have stayed at home due to injury. Dirk Kuyt came home from duty with Holland after suffering a hamstring problem, and will keep company in the treatment rooms at Melwood with metatarsal victims Daniel Agger and Xabi Alonso.
The latter pair could actually be back in time for the next Reds fixture, the derby against Everton. However Rafa doesn’t want to put pressure on the duo to return, he wants to see how well they progress in the next fortnight. There’s no doubting they’ve been missed. Daniel Agger’s absence has left Rafa Benitez using Sami Hyypia for every game, and the Finn is clearly struggling to perform in two games a week – and perhaps Jamie Carragher would have benefitted from a rest after being out with a broken rib earlier in the season. It’s a similar story in midfield: Alonso’s absence means Steven Gerrard has played more games than Rafa would have liked, the captain having been out with a broken toe earlier in the season.
Pundits love to stick the knife into Rafa. Often they have valid points, but more often than not they are drawing on their own experiences of playing when the football world, particularly in this country, was quite different to today. More and more supporters are starting to believe what the pundits are telling them. Pundits, remember, who are often failed managers or even players who were never considered for managerial roles. Yet their word outweighs the years of experience – with success – that Rafa Benitez has picked up.
After the 2-2 draw with Spurs on Sunday Rafa was annoyed with his defence. Liverpool got a point thanks to the late goal from Torres, but Rafa was clearly angry. After time for reflection he was back to his usual stance of keeping his criticisms in-house. He said: “This is not a time for being negative; it is a time for being positive. We are still unbeaten in the league, qualification for the Champions League depends on that and we are still also in the Carling Cup. We are in a better position than last year. In the Premier League we have five more points than at this stage last season. We are closer to the top of the table and with one game in hand.”
That league position was built on a great start to the season, so why are Liverpool finding it hard right now? Rafa says: “We just have to get our confidence back because we have lost it at the moment. At the start of the season we were playing well, with confidence and scoring goals. Now we just need to keep working hard. It is difficult with so many players away on international duty but we have spoken to the ones who are here and tried to analyse what has been going wrong.”
Rafa is probably less annoyed with this international break than previous ones, it gives him time to take a breath, but he’s still worried about his players: “It is difficult with the players being away but we just have to manage. We have no control over what they do for the next couple of weeks. I just hope they don’t come back with any injury problems.”
He’s hoping that Alonso and Agger are two players he’s able to work with at Melwood before the end of the international break. According to Rafa Alonso has the best chance of a return to action in time for the derby, but neither are ready yet: “Agger and Alonso are still not ready. We said six weeks for them to be out and it is getting close to that by the time the international break is over. We now have a two-week break for the internationals and we will see how they are after that, but even after that, it may not be quite the time. It could be another week or so before they can be considered after that.”
Alonso himself is hopeful, saying: “There is a chance but at this moment I don’t know, we’ll just have to wait and see. If I’m pain free next week then maybe I could be involved but it’s still too early to say.”
Rafa won’t rush the pair back: “We’ve got to be careful and we’ll have to wait and see about Xabi. I think he has a better chance than Agger of being back next week. It is too early to say anything at the moment. They are both progressing well but I’ll need to speak with the physio and the doctors next week before we know what the situation is.”