Liverpool’s first defeat of the season saw some of manager Rafael Benitez’s old critics reappearing from wherever they were hiding during Liverpool’s run of winning games in all competitions, a run that saw them scoring twenty-one goals with just one in reply. The critics were out because he’d changed formation and made some changes. The fact he used different formations and personnel through that run of victories was conveniently ignored.
Sami Hyypia was rested because Rafa felt he was too tired, at 34, to play yet another successive game, a situation forced on Rafa due to the injury to Daniel Agger and the lack of experienced cover. Rafa chose to give Jack Hobbs his first start instead. As well as resting certain players, another of Rafa’s decisions that was criticised was his substitutions – replacing Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher despite being behind. Torres was also replaced as a precaution.
Rafa explained that the players he replaced the trio with were capable of creating chances and scoring goals, and that he was considering the next game too, his must-win tie against Marseilles. Pressure from the owners, who are still to deny the story they will be sacking Rafa before the summer, sees the boss under more pressure than he should be. He no doubt feels failure to qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament would give the owners the excuse they’re waiting for to sack him.
The Spaniard said: “The players are not happy because we have lost but they know I have to make these decisions and they understand why. What was clear was that some players were tired. We knew that. But we couldn’t change 11 players so we were trying to protect players who were at risk. We knew it would be a difficult game at Reading and wanted to change some players because we knew they were tired and it could be a risk. The pitch was heavy, but 3-1 down and time running out I thought we needed fresh legs and to protect our key players. If we are fit and have fresh legs then maybe in the last 10 minutes we will score the winning goal in Marseille.”
As Rafa says, when he makes a decision he does it for what he feels is the right reason: “When you take decisions it is because you believe it is the best. In this case, I was trying to protect the players. I know Steven wants to play to the end of every game, the same with Carra and Torres, but I needed to think about whether I could change things in the game and, if it’s difficult to do that, I start thinking about the next one. Some of our players have been playing a lot of games in a row. Sami Hyypia is 34 years old now and was really tired, so as a manager you need to make decisions because you know your players. I was thinking about what is best for my players.”
As for the formation, Rafa pointed out how easy it is to criticise in hindsight, but that he has used this formation successfully recently: “Sometimes it is easy to talk about this after the game but at Newcastle we played the same system and everyone was saying what a fantastic team we were. Against Everton in the first half an hour it was the same – we were much better than them – so sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
The inexperienced referee and his assistants had a poor game, but despite that Rafa still felt they could have got a result had they taken the chances they made for themselves: “I am not happy with the decisions but we didn’t take our chances and that was maybe the key. We had a lot of confidence before the game. I think that the key in this kind of game is to take your chance against opposition that has a very good team spirit, pressed and played a physical game. We needed to move the ball, pass the ball and take our chances and it would have been easier for us, but we couldn’t do it.”
For the Reading manager Steve Coppell it was one of his biggest games of the season, against the club he supported as a boy. He put a lot of thought into how to play the game and felt it paid off: “We were talking the day before the game about Gerrard maybe coming from a wider area, which obviously makes them a sort of ‘thin’ team, if you know what I mean. They were thin and we tried to play with width. That was the contrast and the way we set up against teams who bulk up the middle. Obviously with players who are being asked to play wide they are not comfortable there. They forever keep making the pitch thin and we just tried to turn that round by attacking down the flanks as much as possible.”
Next up for Liverpool is that match in Marseilles, which is expected to be watched by co-owner George Gillett, who’s been very quiet during the rows at the club between owner and manager. He was due over in Europe before the weekend so that he could take in the Manchester United game, but is now believed to be ready to attend his second game of the season.
Rafa says the match is like a final, something he’s quite familiar with: “We have experience of finals so we will do the same thing we were doing before. It is an important game but the players have experience of those. Since I have been here we have been in seven finals. We have won four so we have enough experience and quality in the squad to win.”
He also recalls two big games close together when he was a manager in Spain: “We played one Saturday for Valencia to win the league and then on the Thursday to win the UEFA Cup. We won both so I like to be in this sort of situation because it means you are playing for something. We have confidence that we can do it.”
If Tom Hicks sticks to his guns and does what he has been reportedly threatening to do, this could yet prove to a final in another way for Rafa – his final game as boss.
The players are flying out this morning.