Barclays Premier League, September 20th 2008.
Liverpool v Stoke
Liverpool are at home for the second league game in succession, and a win would take them top of the league, but nobody at Anfield is taking three points for granted.
Stoke City might be new boys in this division, but Rafa Benitez doesn’t expect a repeat of the one-sided game that took place the last time the two sides met. That was an 8-0 League Cup win, eight years ago at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, which included a Robbie Fowler hat-trick.
It won’t be an easy game – the regular mentions of Stoke’s threat from throw-ins suggests that it will be another one of those games where supposedly inferior opposition fight like it’s their cup final. But Liverpool know that the better they get, the more they’ll find opponents arrive at Anfield feeling that way. One of Rafa’s challenges is to find a way to deal with that approach. Another is to ensure complacency doesn’t set in, like it did after Liverpool’s promising start to last season.
He’s not weakened his team in any great way. Carra and Skrtel retain the centre-back spots with Agger sitting on the sidelines again, waiting for his chance to reclaim his place. All three are top quality centre-backs that any decent manager would love to have at his disposal; much like the days when Liverpool had to choose two out of Hansen, Lawrenson and Gillespie.
At full-back there’s no real choice for Rafa. Fabio Aurelio is injured once again, meaning new signing Andrea Dossena is the only left-back available. Alvaro Arbeloa has played effectively at left-back, but he starts today at right-back. Steve Finnan was sent to Spain at the end of the summer to help keep the wage bill down as well as help towards transfer funds, following on from John Arne Riise’s move to Roma, leaving Rafa with only one other full-back available for today, and that’s new signing Philip Degen. Degen makes the bench, hoping that he’ll get a chance to make his competitive debut.
Javier Mascherano is one player that many fans would like to see start each game, but others feel he’s a luxury against opposition who arrive at Anfield to defend. Rafa’s left him on the bench today, preferring instead to start with captain Steven Gerrard, scorer of both goals in Marseille in midweek, and Xabi Alonso, who nearly left the club in the summer.
In what is expected to be a 4-4-2 formation, another new signing Albert Riera starts on the left wing, with Dirk Kuyt likely to start on the opposite flank. Kuyt’s playing there because Rafa has both of his £20m+ strikers available today, with last season’s top-scorer Fernando Torres and new signing Robbie Keane both looking to get their names back on the scoresheet. Torres has scored once this season, before injury set him back, Keane has yet to open his account since signing from Spurs. Rafa is confident their partnership will be a success, but Ryan Babel, scorer of last week’s winner, is on the bench if required for ‘impact’.
On the opposite side today is former Liverpool player Salif Diao, who will probably get a warm welcome from the Liverpool fans – warm because he was one of those cult heroes to many, even warmer because of the relief he’s no longer in a Red shirt.
Rafa Benitez met with representatives of the Liverpool FC supporters’ union, Spirit of Shankly, on Thursday. In that meeting he stressed his feelings towards the club and the job in hand were as strong as ever. Although most of the conversation is likely to remain confidential, including any views Rafa may have expressed relating to the ownership situation, the manager spoke to the Liverpool Echo about some of what was said: “It was a very positive meeting and I explained how happy I am with the new staff – Sammy, keeping the spirit of Shankly alive – but also Pellegrino, Paco de Miguel and Xavi Valero for their new ideas.”
He also said that he spoke to them about his ideas for the club’s Academy facilities, which he’d like to see improved so that the club’s reserve fixtures could be played there, rather than in Wrexham or Warrington as in previous seasons: “We were also talking about the future and I told them about my idea to build stands at the Academy so that our fans can go to Kirkby to see the reserve team and the players. These are things that can improve the spirit of the club but also improve the experience of the players so that they know that they are with a top club with a lot of tradition and a great history.”
How far those plans have got, and whether the club can actually afford to make those improvements, wasn’t revealed, but Rafa seems to have found the meeting extremely useful: “We were also talking about ideas to improve the club, trying to be positive and work together.”
With SOS now having met with Dubai, Rick Parry, George Gillett and Rafa Benitez, only Tom Hicks has yet to approach the union to discuss the issues that are causing so much concern to so many fans.
Liverpool: 25 Reina, 17 Arbeloa, 23 Carragher, 37 Skrtel, 2 Dossena, 18 Kuyt, 8 Gerrard, 14 Alonso, 11 Riera, 7 Keane, 9 Torres
Subs: 1 Cavalieri, 5 Agger, 15 Benayoun, 19 Babel, 20 Mascherano, 21 Lucas, 27 Degen
Stoke City: 29 Sorensen, 2 Griffin, 25 Faye, 33 Sonko, 3 Higginbotham, 7 Lawrence, 4 Olofinjana, 18 Diao, 24 Delap, 12 Kitson, 11 Sidibe
Subs: 1 Simonsen, 5 Cort, 6 Whelan, 9 Cresswell, 10 Fuller, 23 Tonge, 28 Wilkinson
Referee: Andre Marriner