Liverpool’s 4-0 demolition of Marseille confirmed their place in the knockout stages of the Champions League and also that manager Rafael Benitez was the person to take Liverpool onto more silverware.
Before that happens the club’s current owners and self-proclaimed “custodians” need to back him, both by coming out and saying there are no plans to sack him, and by allowing him to complete the deals he’d started negotiating before Tom Hicks got heavy-handed in the press. Those deals would have cost the club nothing in terms of actual expenditure, given that Rafa was also negotiating sales, but the owners blocked them all, unwilling to even discuss them until this week.
After the 4-0 win, and as always, Rafa acknowledged the part the supporters always play in Liverpool’s results: “I am really proud of the players and the supporters. It was an amazing performance from everyone concerned with Liverpool. The players had the right mentality. The key was they were really focused on the game. We scored an early goal and afterwards we controlled nearly everything.”
Next up for Liverpool will be either one of the Italian giants of Milan – AC or Inter – or one of three Spanish sides: Real Madrid, Barcelona or possibly Sevilla. Rafa wasn’t worrying just yet, enjoying the win and accepting that all the potential opponents are top teams: “It doesn’t matter who we play now. All of them are good sides but we are just enjoying ourselves. My team is growing and playing better every week. I am happy with the way we are attacking and defending. These are good times for us at the moment. We are playing well and with confidence – it’s not a problem who we play against now.”
The defeat against Reading on Saturday came as a result of a lot of bad luck and some poor refereeing, against a well-organised side. A minority of supporters felt Rafa had brought that defeat on himself by putting more priority on last night’s match – even though Rafa had played a strong team using tactics that had worked before for the team. One criticism of Rafa from a minority of supporters in that game was that his decision to substitute Torres (who had received a knock anyway) and Gerrard suggested surrender. If either of those players had received an injury in the last twenty minutes against Reading Liverpool’s victory might not have been quite so convincing, if it had been a victory at all. Torres and Gerrard were star men in a performance were every player in a black shirt got close to top marks.
Rafa knows he’s got to meet with the outspoken Tom Hicks and the quieter George Gillett this week, to discuss transfers supposedly, but no doubt also to discuss their reported plans – still not denied – to sack him before next season. Rafa now wants that discussion to be carried out with the owners directly, not through the press, and understandably skirted questions on the subject: “I was not thinking about the meeting. I must simply try to do my job. You could see the players, supporters, everyone were together. Everyone wants to win and we should talk about that, not the meeting.”
Still trying to avoid adding to the speculation, Rafa said of his future: “I am always confident – you can see that the players and supporters are happy, and this is good for the future of the club. I am not thinking about my situation every day, I am just thinking about my team and how they can improve.”
Fernando Torres scored a goal that will live long in the memory, but Rafa was quick to praise the scorers of the third and fourth goals, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel: “The performance was really good. We played compact as a unit, played well in attack, had our chances and didn’t concede. People will talk about the second goal of Torres, but the third goal and fourth were good and everything went well.”
Rafa’s opposite number, Eric Gerets, was gracious in defeat: “The first goal really hurt us. Right after that, you could see the players were nervous on the pitch. Every time Liverpool went forward, they looked dangerous. And when you have a player such as Steven Gerrard against you in midfield, it’s hard to play against. I am really disappointed with what happened. We missed the game totally. Congratulations to Liverpool, who did what they had to.”
Gerets said his players did not give their all, something he’d not seen since he arrived at the club immediately before the Anfield win: “I will wait until tomorrow to analyse the game, but it is fair to say it is the first time I have noticed that the players did not give one-hundred percent.”
Liverpool captain Gerrard, who won the penalty that he scored the rebound from, was obviously delighted. He explained to ITV Sport how the manager got the players ready: “The most important word in the team talk was cup final. When the manager says it’s a cup final situation you know you have got to give everything you’ve got. From the goalkeeper to the front men, every one of us has done our job.”
Gerrard admitted it was the team’s own fault that it went down to the final match: “We made it difficult for ourselves in this group. We are disappointed it came down to the last game. We needed to perform tonight. It was a performance full of character and hard work. We knew we’d got the quality so we’re very happy with the performance.”