Despite the off-field problems and the various threats to manager Rafael Benitez’s future at the club, Javier Mascherano is still hoping to get a long-term deal signed up sooner rather than later.
His advisors jumped the gun somewhat on deadline day by saying a deal had been done when it was still no more than a verbal agreement. Lawyers are inspecting the terms and all concerned expect an announcement next week at the latest. Mascherano spoke recently of maybe having to consider a move to Italy if the deal didn’t go ahead, but now he’s confident of staying: “It’s not finished yet but I am hoping to stay here. I have a lot of confidence that after the next week I will be able to say, ‘Everything is right and I am staying here in Liverpool.’ We now need to wait. We are very close but we need to talk again next week. I think everything will be okay. I’ve waited a long time, so I can wait one week more.”
He says the supporters are one of the factors in his desire to continue his career at Anfield: “The fans like me and I love the fans. They are great and that’s the reason I want to stay here.”
The fans have suffered this season, Tom Hicks causing most of that suffering, with George Gillett providing the assist. Although Rafa’s popularity is still strong, there are a few more dissenting voices each time a point is dropped. Players have performed well below the standard they are capable of at times, some more than others, and Mascherano said the team needed to give the fans a win after four draws and a defeat in the league. They got that result on Saturday, beating Sunderland 3-0: “We owed the fans a result,” said the Argentinean international. “We’ve played badly recently but now we can have confidence again. We can go into the international break happy and then we have a big game against Chelsea. It’s a difficult place to go, so the win over Sunderland was important because it means we can go to London with a lot of confidence. We can play with confidence again.”
Other results went Liverpool’s way and the club are now in fifth place with a game in hand: “We are close to fourth spot again – just one point behind. But now we have to keep this level.”
The protests from supporters after the match didn’t go unnoticed across the Atlantic, where George Gillett remains in hiding, said to be deeply ashamed of how his joint purchase of the club has turned out. Tom Hicks has been quiet for a couple of days now, but he’ll have seen local press coverage in Texas referring to the protests. It’s also started to dawn on more and more supporters of his Dallas Stars and Texas Rangers that he’s not actually been a great owner by any stretch of the imagination, and their complacency has allowed him to leave both franchises underachieving. It’s early days but his shortcomings and broken promises as Liverpool owner are highlighting similar wrongdoings back in his home state.
Hicks is desperate to see the Mascherano deal go through so he can use it as some kind of proof to his claims that he’s now going to be “supporting” the manager. The figure quoted for the deal last week, when it didn’t actually go through, was £18.6m, conveniently quoting the initial loan amount of around £1.5m. The rest of the fee is largely made up of wages, with only a relatively small fee going to MSI. Momo Sissoko’s departure will more than cover the “transfer fee” component of the deal; the money saved on his wages will cover the rest. But Hicks will milk it for all he can, of that you can be sure.
Mascherano played alongside Steven Gerrard on Saturday, with another central midfielder, Lucas, tried out in the problem left-side position. This meant no place for Xabi Alonso who has struggled with both form and injuries this season. Manager Rafa Benitez said the Spanish midfielder will have to work harder if he wants to displace the other three: “Xabi needs to step it up. When you are not 100% fit, you want to play every game because you need to play more games to build up your fitness. But if Gerrard, Mascherano or Lucas are playing well, it means there is competition for places which is good for the team. Xabi knows he needs to work harder if he wants to have a place in the team.”
Rafa has a small number of long-term critics who were on his back well before this season started and will stay there until he either leaves or wins the league. One criticism they aim at Rafa on a regular basis is that Mascherano shouldn’t be playing against “lesser” teams. The same people who bemoan rotation say Mascherano should be rotated in-and-out of the side depending on who the opponents are. But Rafa seems to have decided to stick, in the main, with a “spine” that rarely changes. Mascherano has played alongside Gerrard for a large number of games in recent times, Rafa seeing this as a key to getting Gerrard utilised more for his attacking and creative qualities: “Mascherano was back from suspension (on Saturday) and he gives us balance in the middle and Gerrard can be more free going forward. Lucas was playing really well the other day so we had three midfielders, and we needed to have wingers or strikers on the bench. That’s why Alonso was not in the squad on Saturday.” Alonso is now on international duty with Spain who play a friendly against France on Wednesday.
Rafa claimed that the moral amongst players was on the up: “The players are happier and everyone is pushing together. The commitment of all the team was fantastic.”
Captain Steven Gerrard may find himself playing under a new manager from this summer at Anfield, such is the uncertainty at the club, but he’s already in that position for England. He’s due to play in a friendly for his country on Wednesday, their first match under new coach Fabio Capello, and is expected to be named captain at least for that fixture. But Gerrard is looking forward to a new beginning: “We had a quick meeting last night and he told us it is a fresh start for everyone. He has made it clear he wants a winning mentality around the place and wants to build a winning team with players pulling in the same direction.”
Gerrard said: “He thinks we can improve going forward and defensively also. He said to us in a team meeting and also on the training ground that he has paid attention to watching how we perform individually and as a team. He has watched a lot of our games.”
Gerrard spoke in his autobiography about how his relationship with Rafa was more detached than it had been with Gerard Houllier, but this doesn’t seem to be the type of thing that bothers him these days: “I don’t think it is about enjoying yourself with the manager off the pitch. It is all about seriousness and getting results in an England shirt. That is the most important thing, not having a laugh and a joke.”
For once Liverpool’s first game following an international break isn’t at lunchtime on the Saturday. They face Chelsea in the last game of the day on Sunday, a match they’d have been predicted to win following their performance in the reverse fixture early in the season. But confidence has been battered since then and given Chelsea’s home record it’s not going to be easy to get the points.