When Liverpool won the European Cup in May it was a tremendous achievement from a side that had struggled in their domestic league. Rafael Benitez already knew how European football worked, but he admitted that his knowledge of the English game was nowhere near deep enough when he joined. In addition to that, he claimed that there was a need to improve the squad. To see Liverpool going into their last game of the year after winning nine consecutive league games must have been much more of an improvement than he’d have expected this soon. Game by game, piece by piece, Liverpool seem to have got better and better. The new Liverpool are hard to beat, create a lot of chances, and put plenty of those chances away. The understanding from team members about where their colleagues are and what they are likely to do has been outstanding – even when players are rotated, the replacements seem to have no trouble slotting in. When Rafa changes the system slightly, the players again fit in with it.
For Rafa though there is still much more to be done before he would consider himself totally happy. In the last two games Liverpool have played well and won well, but would have pleased their boss more if they’d just got an extra goal early enough to kill the game off. Speaking today, Rafa said: “If you’re looking for an area where we must improve, it’s our ruthlessness. When we are 2-0 up and creating chances, we need to score more to make sure the game is finished.”
Rafa needs games finished early if possible so he can rotate those players on the field and conserve energy in what has already been a long season. There’s also the worry that not killing the game off gives the opposition a chink of light that they can get back into the game. Rafa says that for a short time on Wednesday Liverpool were giving Everton too much say in the game: “We controlled the game for a long time against Everton, but for 20 minutes we lost control. This is where we must improve. In the second half on Wednesday, our third goal made it impossible for the other team. Before then, we gave them some hope. There was a part of the game when they thought they could do something, and that shouldn’t have happened. In the end it was comfortable, but at times it could be more so.”
Everton got a goal back and a chance to maybe get something out of the game at a time when Liverpool had been obviously taking their foot off the gas. The goal came just before half-time which gave Rafa the chance to prove to his players just what happens if you relax too soon. Thankfully Liverpool got the chance to learn from this experience without any damage being done. For Benitez it’s experience that will help them to continue their improvement: “Sometimes experience is important in this situation. We have been playing well with our brain and our heart. In these situations, sometimes you need to use the brain even more. We need to finish the games. These are small details, but this is where we must work harder.”
Liverpool are being talked about as title-challengers again, but Rafa is not going to be drawn into a quote about the going for the title that he’ll later regret: “I don’t like thinking about positions, but I’m happy we’re so close to second for now After the next two games, it will be easier for me to say exactly what we’re fighting for. I don’t know if it’s so clear yet. The next two fixtures are very important to us.” Those fixtures include the visit to the Reebok to face the much-improved Bolton. Bolton have had one game less to play over Christmas because of the weather so it will be a tough game for Liverpool. Before that they play host to West Brom, and Rafa continued: “If we win, maybe we can say more about what we can achieve this season. Then we have Manchester United and Tottenham to come in the New Year, so things can change very quickly. I preferred not to talk too much about our ambitions when we were in the middle of the table, and it’s the same now. Our aim remains to finish as high as possible and we must still think finishing in the top four is our real target.”
Rafa is pleased most of all that the whole of his squad are doing what he asks of them whenever they are chosen: “I always thought this kind of run was possible, even after our start to the season. Nobody could see the real position of this team until now. Victories like Wednesday make me most happy. Not because it was a derby, but because playing two games so quickly at such a high level shows me how much better the squad is. We can make changes to the side and our level doesn’t drop. Whether we use Warnock, Sissoko or Cisse, the team is doing the same thing. That’s important and that’s why I have so much confidence for the rest of the seasons. Now we are consistent, no matter how many changes are made.”