Liverpool’s preparations for tomorrow’s FA Cup game against Barnsley have been made with one eye on the midweek clash with Inter Milan in the Champions League. Reds boss Rafa Benítez has been criticised in the past for prioritising the Champions League ahead of the Premier League, but there’s no such problem at least for this leg. The challenge of facing the Championship side still requires the team to respect their opponents and avoid an attitude of going into the game thinking it’s already won, but it should be possible to pick a strong team whilst still resting key players.
One of those to be rested is likely to be Fernando Torres. The Spanish striker was forced to leave the field early on international duty last week, after suffering a hamstring injury. This kept him out of the Chelsea game on Sunday, but his progress has been impressive this week and perhaps had this been a league match he would have been risked.
Another player who missed that game through injury was Sami Hyypia. He’d got what is described as a minor hip injury, but has been training this week and could play tomorrow. This is all the more likely given Rafa’s alternatives as partner to Jamie Carragher. New signing Martin Skrtel put a nightmare first start behind him in the fourth round with impressive performances in his next two games for the club, but now looks like missing the chance to start for the third game in a row. It’s not the wrist injury which saw him require treatment during that Chelsea game, but a calf problem sustained in training. The other centre-half Daniel Agger is still not quite ready to return to action, but special boots are bringing him closer to that day and manager Rafa Benítez feels it will be sooner rather than later.
So with Hyypia barely recovered from injury, Skrtel doubtful due to injury, and Agger unlikely to be recovered from injury, Rafa may decide to either play a full-back out of position or use a youngster instead. Mikel San Jose was on the bench against Chelsea, and if that was because Rafa feels he’s close to first-team quality rather than purely an emergency measure then he could be handed a debut.
Full-backs Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio have also been back in training this week, but with good performances on Sunday from John Arne Riise – who’s not had the best of seasons – and Steve Finnan the manager has another dilemma. Especially so when planning as he is for two matches, not to mention the need to keep confidence levels on the up.
Benítez explained how he’ll need to make his decision today: “It could be too much of a risk to play Fernando against Barnsley. We have Hyypia, Arbeloa, Aurelio and Torres that we need to check on Friday so we can see whether to risk them. Every player is important to us, but Torres has been scoring goals so we have to be careful. The key for me will be to see how the player is after training.” There’s an outside chance of Torres being on the bench for the game, just in case, especially with Andriy Voronin’s absence through injury leaving Rafa with only Dirk Kuyt and Peter Crouch as recognised strikers, although he could use Ryan Babel there if required.
It also sounds like Martin Skrtel will be wrapped in cotton wool over the weekend to allow him time to recover ahead of that game against the Italian giants on Tuesday: “Skrtel felt something in his calf the other day. He only mentioned it after training, and after speaking with the doctors we realised it could be a risk for the weekend. We need to check, but I don’t think he will be available for the Barnsley game.”
Rafa implied that Agger’s return to action will require him to overcome psychological barriers as well as physical ones. The Dane needs to accept he’ll continue to feel pain when playing but mustn’t assume that means the bone is broken again: “Agger is improving and was training today and playing football. He is better than before but he will need time. It depends if he feels something or not. Sometimes when a player is injured for a long time, they need to understand they will feel something. So it depends on the player and we will also speak with the doctors.”
Tomorrow’s game looks likely to be an opportunity for Xabi Alonso to show the manager he’s capable of getting back the kinds of performances Liverpool fans have grown to love him for. The Spaniard suffered a metatarsal break earlier in the season and has struggled for fitness and form. With captain Steven Gerrard likely to be rested tomorrow, Xabi has the chance to prove himself again. Last time out in this competition a number of players were given a similar chance, but failed to take it in a hugely embarrassing game – particularly in the first half – against non-league Havant and Waterlooville. Peter Crouch was one of those, but injuries and continuing poor form from Dirk Kuyt saw Rafa Benítez give him another chance – if Crouch starts tomorrow it will be his third consecutive start, quite a rarity for the England international.
One player given a chance to prove himself against Havant, although knowing it was highly unlikely to earn him a regular starting place, was goalkeeper Charles Itandje. His goalkeeping was reminiscent of the dark days of David James’ darkest days at Anfield, and the agreement that allows him to play in early rounds of the domestic cups perhaps needed to be reviewed after that game. Last season Jerzy Dudek came in for the two cup games against Arsenal, and his mistakes certainly contributed to the Reds being out of both cups in the space of a few days. If he’d not got legendary status from his performance in Istanbul in 2005, it’s doubtful that Dudek would ever have lived that down – both games showing that a ring rusty keeper is a risk, regardless of his past abilities.
Itandje hasn’t got legendary status, but is confident in his own abilities, abilities he says the supporters are yet to see: “I have confidence and don’t have anything to prove to myself. I know what I can do. I don’t think the fans have seen the best of me yet.”
If selected tomorrow – and that’s still to be confirmed – he knows that he’s got to improve on his last performance: “We’ll have to play with determination because it will be a hard game. It was the same against Havant and Waterlooville when everyone was expecting it to be 7-0 but after 30 minutes it was like a bad dream. We have to increase our level from that. But that’s football, anything can happen. That’s the magic of the game and we have to learn that lesson.”
Many commentators and pundits, particularly long-retired English players, bemoan the foreign influence on the game and complain that these overseas stars don’t understand the significance of the FA Cup because their own domestic cup competitions are perhaps on a par with our League Cup. But that’s rarely the case, and isn’t with Itandje: “I used to watch the FA Cup a lot back home. The things I remember are the big games and Wembley. I also remember the Liverpool versus West Ham final. That was an incredible comeback.”
Itandje can only hope for a run in the first team, and knows it’s not going to happen based on form unless something radically changes with Pepe Reina’s performances. The Frenchman says Reina’s recent new record for reaching 50 clean sheets in the fewest number of games was to be expected: “It’s not surprising because Pepe is a really good goalkeeper. The team has helped also, but I think he will keep going on like this because he is only 25. He knows I am here to try to play as many games as I can but we have a good relationship. We can learn from each other because we are different types of goalkeeper.”
Liverpool fans will be hoping he’s learned enough from Pepe about decision making and composure to prevent any more heart-stopping moments in tomorrow’s game.