Vladi to miss out but Rafa wants rest of class of ’05 to shine

Former Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer has been ruled out of a chance to play his old club on Wednesday through injury. Now at Bordeaux, Smicer continues to be unlucky with injuries and hasn’t played since February due to a knee injury. He’d hoped to be able to in the side’s 1-0 win over Monaco before taking his place against Liverpool in the Champions League clash, but it all came a bit too soon and his club say he won’t be risked.

Vladi spent a lot of time at Anfield short of full fitness, meaning Liverpool fans rarely got to see what he was truly capable of. One of his final acts for us was his goal in the Champions League final in 2005. He was sad that he wasn’t given a change to say goodbye to the fans at home before that though, when Liverpool ended the league season at Anfield: “In my last match at home against Aston Villa, with nothing at stake, the coach Rafael Benítez didn’t even pick me in his squad of 16. I was furious. After six years at the club I didn’t get the chance to salute the fans. There was the final of the UEFA Champions League after that, but that wasn’t the same, that wasn’t at Anfield. Even if I wasn’t the most loved player it was important for me to play, even just five minutes.”

That outburst is not necessarily an attack on Rafa, more an outburst from someone who really did fall in love with the club. Long after the stadium had emptied that day he went on a walk around the outside of the pitch, reflecting on his longest spell with any club.

Rafa Benitez claimed at the weekend that he wasn’t worried at the thought of facing Smicer. Although secretly he probably knew that had Vladi made an appearance that the Czech midfielder would have been ready to show us all what we’ve been missing, Rafa just said: “I like Smicer. He is a good man and a great professional, but I don’t worry too much about what former players can do to you. I know football is full of stories about players facing their old clubs and scoring important goals, but I have looked at the statistics. In reality, I think it is not even 20 per cent of players who score goals against their former team, so I don’t think we should be afraid.” It doesn’t sound convincing though. In fact who would have expected Vladi, after the season he’d had, to be on the pitch in the Champions League final, let alone getting one of the goals that led us to victory?

There have been a few changes since that night in 2005. Of the 14 players that got one the pitch for the Reds that night Rafa has since sold or released Baros, Cisse, Hamann, Traore and Smicer. Smicer came on that night for Harry Kewell, who’s a player that seems as hard-done-to with injuries as Smicer ever was and has yet to play this season. In goal Rafa has moved the hero of that night, Jerzy Dudek, into second place behind Pepe Reina, but of the rest of those on the field most are still playing a big part in Rafa’s current plans for this season. Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise, Gerrard, Garcia and Alonso are all expected to show the new players how it’s done. Unfortunately that’s not happening, Rafa’s finding these players are just not playing to their normal levels.

Liverpool improved in the league the season after winning the Champions League, finishing third compared to the previous season’s fifth, but that won’t happen again the way those players are performing so far. Rafa said today that they’ve really got to start performing like last season again, although he claims not to be surprised yet that they aren’t: “It’s clear some of our more established players need to be at the top of their game. I said I thought it would be November before we were at our best because of a number of reasons.”

Saturday’s draw against Blackburn was really not good enough if Liverpool are going to even qualify for the Champions League, never mind win the league, but Rafa says he knows where it’s going wrong: “If you look at our formation for the game, we had the same back four, with Xabi in front of the defence, that has done so well for us last season. We had the same players there, but we need to get the balance right when we are attacking because, like the Galatasaray game, we were vulnerable to counter-attacks.”

He says we got things right for a bit of the game, but of course that’s not enough: “Saturday was disappointing again, but for thirty minutes of the second half we played much better football, we attacked well and the crowd was really behind us. The problem is we are only playing like this for thirty minutes. We know we must do this for ninety.”

At least Craig Bellamy scored his first Liverpool league goal on Saturday: “There were positives from the weekend, it was good for Craig to score and at times we played better. It’s been difficult, but we will improve.”

Wednesday night’s squad may include Dirk Kuyt and Daniel Agger, both injured on international duty and forced out of Saturday’s game, but they are still only an outside chance, along with Robbie Fowler who’s got a back injury. Momo Sissoko is still considered extremely doubtful.