Rafa Benítez is happy to carry on with his rotation policy despite criticism from so many quarters – especially for tonight’s Carling Cup match. One player who will benefit from this is Robbie Fowler. Fowler has been back in training again recently , after a back injury had kept him out of contention for many games. All being well he’ll get to play in tonight’s match and that will be a boost for the fans who’ve suffered so much of late: “We brought Robbie Fowler back here because he had passion and could score goals. He trained so hard, but then he got a back injury. He had to stop, but he is now training. He knows he has players ahead of him, but he can do a good job for us, he is a fan and he has the spirit we want.” Although Rafa hasn’t mentioned it, with the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia likely to be rested, Fowler could be handed the captain’s armband. Even if he isn’t Rafa sees him as an important role model for the youngsters likely to be used tonight: “He understands that he must support his team-mates and he must be an example for the younger players. I hope he can play and score. He has intelligence, a fantastic finisher. Players have problems as they get older and they do not have the pace, so he must be patient and take the opportunities when they are there.”
Rafa says that as well as youngsters he’ll be using the senior players who are not quite first choice – not that there is such a concept at Anfield. He wants to see the fringe players given a run out: “We will be using our whole squad. We have a lot of players who need games, so maybe it will be a combination of senior professionals and some young players. You know our idea from previous years. We do take the competition seriously, but it’s clear we must be careful when we decide who plays. People still talk about changes in the team, but look at the situation we have with a player like Steve Finnan. He has already played nearly 20 games this season. For some clubs, that’s virtually half a season. It`s clear that’s not a good situation for the player or the club.”
Finnan is Liverpool’s only recognised right-back and Rafa probably wasn’t expecting that to be the case for this half of the season. Jan Kromkamp had been told he would be allowed to leave in the summer but it was dependant on the Reds finding another right-back as cover. The attempts to bring Lucas Neill to Anfield failed as Blackburn held out for a ridiculous amount of money, not to mention expecting us to include Stephen Warnock in the deal! Neill is out of contract at the end of this season, can sign terms on a Bosman deal in January and under FIFA regulations is allowed to buy himself out of a deal. No wonder Liverpool decided not to bother. Blackburn were still smarting at having to sell Bellamy to us at what was really a cut-price rate and also felt they could persuade Neill to sign a new contract. He still hasn’t. It’s not even clear who’ll be used as a right-back tonight, but Finnan deserves his rest.
Rafa was asked how important he felt the Carling Cup was: “My priority is to win every game but if you talk about the Carling Cup then you can say it’s not my priority. If you read the rules then you see you have to play your strongest team, but how can you play your strongest team in all the competitions?” Rafa also pointed out how fickle observers of the game can be: “If you win then people will say it’s fantastic to see the younger players, if you lose people ask why you didn’t use the senior players. We will try to use our senior players, but I won’t use Gerrard or Alonso or players who have played a lot of games. Some of my players have already played 1800 minutes this season which is a lot. We need to be focused on what we want. We want to win every game.”
The flavour-of-the-moment for Rafa to answer questions on, apart from away form, is rotation of course, and Rafa has defended his policies. Again. As he says, he didn’t exactly have a choice anyway: “At the weekend Bellamy was injured and Gerrard was coming back. The goalkeeper, defenders and some of the players in front of them are the same players that played last season when we kept 33 clean sheets. Over the last two or three games we have played almost with the same defenders. It’s not a problem with the players because we are doing the same things.”
He also recognises how passionate the supporters feel about the club, how much the club means to the people. Liverpool’s fan-base covers the whole world, but despite what some dreadlocked players might say, the city of Liverpool contains a lot of Liverpool supporters. Rafa says he knows why the fans are so angry if it looks like the players haven’t tried as hard as they could: “Here in Liverpool the people are workers. And they want their footballers to work hard to win things. This is not a rich city, there is a lot of people who have to work hard. We must do the same, but we must protect our players and use lads who have not played so much. If we cannot compete in the Carling Cup with these players it means we do not have a squad good enough to go for four trophies with maximum effort. But regardless, we still must protect our players. Some smaller clubs play 40 games a season, but we can play 75. It is impossible to compete like that using the same players. Now after losing at Old Trafford we must show people – on the pitch – that we have character and can win.”
For many people, Liverpool’s title hopes were already hanging by a thread before the defeat on Sunday, but that was the final straw. Rafa won’t say “We can’t win the league now”, but he knows it won’t be at all easy now. But why worry? We can still have a good season if we start performing now, and as the season gets closer to an end we could still close that gap. He said: “My idea is very clear. I don’t need to think about the title because I know we are eleven points behind. We are not stupid and we know it will be really difficult but the only way to improve our possibilities is by winning, starting with our next game. We have Reading in the Carling Cup and we will try to win. Then we will try and beat Aston Villa in the league and then Reading in the league. We don’t need to talk about points and possibilities, we need to talk about the next game.”
Whatever team Rafa picks tonight, it’s extremely important that it performs well and puts the club through to the next round, we all need a morale boost.