Liverpool boss Rafa Benítez will be making changes to his team for this afternoon’s Champions League qualifier against Toulouse, but says the team he puts out will still be a strong one. He feels he has enough quality in depth in his squad now that changing his side from one game to the next does not automatically mean he’s putting out a weakened team. The media seemed obsessed with the topic of Rafa’s rotation policy (along with whether Gerrard should play on the right) but the manager was hoping he could finally get them to see that it’s a needed policy in the game of today.
As ever, hints seem to be getting dropped about players being unhappy, but this is news to Rafa, who spoke yesterday about today’s game: “We can feel the team spirit is really good, and the only problem we have now is too many players, which is the situation we wanted. I need to check how the team is before I decide for tomorrow, but now we have the quality we need.”
Rafa’s two main reasons for rotation are to firstly ensure the team he puts out are as fit as possible, and secondly to allow him to select the team most suited to that particular fixture. Another factor is how well particular individuals have been performing, and although this is not as big a reason as the pundits often make it out to be it’s enough of a reason to ensure players are kept on their toes: “It’s never easy to decide which players to change, but it’s good for the club and for me because I can see players working so hard in training and telling me, ‘Don’t forget – I’m here’. Each week it may only be a small detail which determines who starts the game because a player might show their quality in a training session or a practice match. This is the competition we’ve wanted.”
That competition applies most of all in midfield and attack, and means that no matter what side Rafa picks for a game he’ll always be leaving top-quality players on the bench or even back at home. This gives the lazier journalists in the press something to write about: using a player’s absence for a big game as an excuse to make up a story about how he is now about to move to another Premiership club.
In truth Rafa doesn’t want players who can’t accept how he picks his teams. He tries to work out before they join if they’ll accept their role in the squad, wanting only players who want the club to do well. He says one unnamed player wanted a word with him, needing some reassurance, and says that player responded in the right way: “Yesterday I spoke to one player about the situation and I was really pleased with his response. He said he would be ready when he was needed and accepted the position like a professional. That’s the mentality we need. I say to all the players, ‘be ready,’ because they will all be needed.”
Some reports have suggested the player in question was Peter Crouch, using words like “showdown” to describe the talks, but it does seem those reports originated in a newspaper that Liverpool fans do not read and that Liverpool players do not speak to. Crouch was left out of the match squad on Saturday for the opener against Villa, but Rafa is rarely if ever going to put four strikers into his league squads. That means one player will always miss out, but should be part of the next game’s squad.
In fact Rafa referred to the reports directly, saying: “I have heard that there are some problems with Crouch – that is not the case. The same applies to Pennant, and for the likes of Javier Mascherano and the rest. It is the same answer for everyone. I now hope I do not have to repeat this to the media every week. The players know they are professionals, and this is football. We may be in a very good rugby town here in Toulouse. But this is not rugby – I cannot use 15 players.”
Players who didn’t travel to Villa at the weekend include Javier Mascherano and Jossi Benayoun, as well as Peter Crouch, but they are expected to be involved today. Jermaine Pennant is one of those who will miss out, the winger not travelling to France. This is likely to happen a lot this season, and Rafa is likely to face the same questions.
The boss was pleased with the win against Villa but says that this one result does not mean a great deal on its own. It was a good start, but he does not want any complacency to creep in: “I like to go in the opposite direction. We have played just one game. While I’m happy and pleased for everyone, if we had lost I would have said it’s not the end of the world – and winning is not the end of the league.”
Liverpool were heading for a 1-0 win until the closing stages of the game, when Villa were awarded a penalty and equalised. Then we saw a free-kick from the captain, Steven Gerrard, which will be a contender for goal of the season, giving Liverpool the victory and the three points. The manager says the manner of the win should help the side mentally: “It was almost a perfect start, but winning as we did could be even better. It will have a good impact on our mentality and confidence. You can get this at the beginning of a season, whereas at the end or middle of last season, people might have said ‘here we go again’ when Aston Villa equalised.”