A scintillating and top-class performance from Liverpool saw them beat the unbeatables at Anfield last night, and set themselves up with a great chance of getting to the Champions League quarter finals. Inter Milan lost 2-0, their rather desperate claims that both yellow cards picked up by Materazzi on the way to his red were not accompanied by any admission that they got off lightly as far as two turned-down penalty appeals were concerned. They’d rarely threatened but had been regularly under threat for the half-hour they had all 11 men on the pitch, the sending off just making them doubly determined to get back to Italy with a nil-nil scoreline.
The win proved that Rafael Benítez does have a team capable of winning against any top side in Europe. Rafa’s problem is that he doesn’t have a squad big enough to allow him to put a team out with that kind of quality for every game, unless he takes a chance on burning his players out, or leaving them vulnerable to injury. Despite the hype from the press, all the top managers rotate – it’s just less noticeable when they do, because they’ve got better quality on the sidelines.
Last night’s team played in the formation Rafa has had mixed fortunes with, described as either a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1 depending on whether the person doing the describing is a glass-half-full kind of person or otherwise. It’s a formation that works well if the personnel employed to carry it out are able to play in the roles that differ from how they might be involved in a 4-4-2 formation. Rafa’s problem is that he doesn’t always have the right personnel in his squad.
Last night’s front three were certainly capable of playing in that formation. Dirk Kuyt’s had a rough season in front of goal, but showed last night that he’s capable of playing a wider role on the right or the left, as well as centrally. Ryan Babel is a right-footed left-winger who wants to be a striker. He played much of last night’s game on the left, as usual, but this role seemed somehow to give him the confidence to try and go past players. He caused Inter a lot of trouble, before seeming to tire with 20 minutes left. In between that duo was Fernando Torres, the ideal player for such a formation.
Rafa’s critics decided quite some time ago that Dirk Kuyt wasn’t good enough, and that Torres and Crouch should start every game up front. Thankfully Benítez realises that Crouch and Torres cannot play together in this formation. Neither of them is suited to the wider role, so it’s one or the other. By the time Crouch came on last night, Inter were down to ten men and the formation was adjusted to take advantage. Crouch and Torres are great together in a 4-4-2, but with two goals in two games and an outstanding performance last night Kuyt deserves a chance again at home to Middlesbrough at the weekend. He seems to have his confidence back, and a confident striker is the most dangerous kind.
The team last night was very close to the team that played Chelsea in the last league game, earning a draw much to the Stamford Bridge side’s relief. Liverpool were missing Torres that day, so Crouch had started. The only other differences last night were Aurelio replacing Riise and the injured Skrtel replaced by Hyypia. Rafa had prioritised the Champions League over the FA Cup – and quite rightly so.
The FA Cup is a nice-to-have, a trophy that carries great memories with it when it’s won, and gives fans something to boast about on their summer holidays surrounded by Mancs and Gooners. But it’s not the Champions League. And it doesn’t carry the same kind of financial rewards as the Champions League, which is of course another important consideration in prioritising games these days.
Rafa’s planning for the season has been interfered with too much this season. Both long-term, when his transfer plans, previously agreed with the owners, were downgraded and also short-term, when he was forced to abandon hope of clawing a point back against Reading in the league because he knew he was going to be sacked three days later if he didn’t win the next Champions League game.
Rafa himself said his squad was better than it had been before, but warned that expecting it to be good enough to win the league may be a little too much to expect – Manchester United’s league-winning squad had just been strengthened much more than Liverpool’s had, for example.
Bruce Grobbelaar is one of the latest ex-players to jump on the “don’t rotate” bandwagon. He’s listed a number of players he says agree with him, but it’s probably best that this list is taken with a pinch of salt unless they speak out themselves about it.
Grobbelaar is a legend in terms of his on-field performances for most of his career. A certain game in Rome is possibly the most memorable of his many performances, the famous jelly legs putting off his AS Roma opponents on their own ground in the penalty shoot-out that ended in victory and a fourth European Cup for the Reds. It was one medal amongst many for the South African born Zimbabwe international, his haul including six league-winners medals and three FA Cup winners medals.
But that became tarnished somewhat when he was alleged to have been involved in match-fixing. The source of the claims was the boycotted Sun newspaper, who’d tried to trap him into accepting payments to fix matches by using undercover reporters and secret video. He was eventually found not guilty, but it had taken two trials where the jury were undecided before he was given the verdict he wanted. Despite the verdict, his name still had that “match fixing” association alongside it, and so he decided to try and sue the newspaper for libel. He won, and was awarded £85,000 as a result. Unfortunately for Grobbelaar the paper appealed, and the goalkeeper lost. The House of Lords decided that although Grobbelaar may have been found not guilty of the actual charges against him, the evidence of dishonesty against him was adequate that any incorrect allegations in The Sun’s story made little difference to his reputation. They ruled in effect that although he’d been libelled, it was only worth a small amount of compensation – so they reduced the award to £1. That in itself would be bad enough, given the costs Grobbelaar had already incurred – but the ruling also ordered him to pay the paper’s costs too, half-a-million pounds worth, enough to ruin him financially.
Even if the match-fixing claims turned out to be untrue as far as the courts were concerned, the incidents that were cited in the claims against him were repeatedly shown on the TV. The attempts at saves were so poor that it was little wonder someone might have thought he’d missed them on purpose. The 3-3 draw against Manchester United was the game that was repeated the most. He was coming to the end of his career by then, and perhaps would have already been gone from Anfield already had David James not had such a calamitous time in those early days at the club.
He’s still got quite a lot of respect from supporters, despite what was implied by the ruling in the libel appeal, but his outburst against Benítez does his former club no favours and as a failed coach himself he has little room to be so vocal in his criticism of the current boss, already under far more pressure than any other manager in the top flight.
He claims: “The ex-players are all hurt — Ian Rush, Sammy Lee, Gary Gillespie, John Aldridge, Alan Kennedy, David Johnson. When we are together, that’s what we talk about. The rotation policy simply has to stop.” Of course those players may be hurt and insisting the rotation policy stops, but it’s up to them to come out individually and say so themselves.
Grobbelaar was signed by possibly Liverpool’s greatest manager, therefore the greatest manager of all time, Bob Paisley. The former goalkeeper used an old quote from the great man to illustrate his point: “Bob Paisley once said ‘football is a simple game made complicated by players and coaches’. It’s all about picking the best team and letting them get on with it in the park.”
Critics of rotation claim this every time. Pick the strongest eleven. Don’t worry about injuries, fatigue, burn-out – just pick the strongest team. No other top team actually does this of course, but it’s rarely noticed. Avram Grant made eleven changes in the Champions League last night, leaving Lampard and Terry on the bench, but it barely raised a mention. Chelsea’s 0-0 draw could well prove to be enough against the Greek outfit, but had Rafa come away from Greece with a 0-0 after making such changes and dropping such players there would be no end to the criticism. Is Arsene Wenger’s head now on a plate after his embarrassing defeat on Saturday? No? Why not?
Grobbelaar, like many critics, showed how little he’s paid attention to the goings-on at Anfield. When the owners approached Klinsmann as “an insurance policy” they did so when Liverpool were still unbeaten in the league and within easy reach of the top of the table. It was in fact right in the middle of a run of wins in all competitions that included the 8-0 win over Besiktas and the 3-0 win over Newcastle. He had struggled to some extent in the Champions League, one point from three games to start with, but was now back on track. Only blind followers of Hicks and Gillett, or the most ignorant of Rafa’s critics would say that the circumstances were right to start not only interviewing but offering a job to a potential replacement. Grobbelaar said: “In business, if the manager is doing badly, the big bosses have every right to interview potential candidates to take over.” Yes, they do Bruce. But was Rafa doing badly? And even if he was, by some stretch of the imagination, was he doing badly enough to offer a job to a replacement? If Klinsmann had accepted, Rafa would have been out of a job despite still having the possibility of pushing his team to perform above their station and push for the league, despite still being in all the other competitions.
Bruce went on: “Why can’t football be the same? Liverpool are not getting results. It’s right for the Americans to talk to Klinsmann.” But Liverpool were getting results Bruce. It’s sad that such a legend has so much negativity against his name, and this kind of talk, spoken in obvious ignorance of the facts and designed to do nothing more than further undermine a very much undermined manager, is disgraceful from someone who claims to still have feelings for the club. Perhaps he’ll do some more homework in future, before making such claims.
As for his inclusion of other Liverpool players, I don’t doubt for one minute that some may agree with Bruce and would like Rafa out of a job. In some cases they may even be hanging on to a hope they would get called up to help out at Melwood (Bruce once claimed he’d manage Liverpool one day!) But not all are desperate to see Rafa out. Before last night’s win John Aldridge backed the boss, and called for him to be backed in return, by giving him the right-hand-man he’s so obviously missing. Aldo’s views were quite supportive of the boss, but perhaps more importantly were constructive, well-thought-out and well-meaning. He told Setanta: “The club has imploded over the past few months and it can only get better. I think a lot of people from the outside are getting the wrong gist in many ways, I think when Pako Ayestaran went about four months ago, we haven’t really played the same since and I think that has got a massive burden on it personally. Rafa has held the fort on his own and he hasn’t got a right-hand man to help him along.”
Rafa is renowned for working around the clock, which was all the more reason the owners’ Klinsmann approach stunk. Rafa’s cards had been marked in the summer, and his potential sacking had nothing to do with performances. Aldo said that this hard work is too much for one man: “He is working single-handedly and very, very hard under the circumstances and I think he might need a little bit of help at the moment.”
Had Liverpool lost last night the knives would have been out, but Aldo was urging caution ahead of what could be long-remembered as a historic victory: “In all honesty to sack the manager at this stage of the season would be crazy, it really would. It wouldn’t make sense. You are always going to get a percentage of the fans that are anti the manager in these situations but with Liverpool I think a large proportion are behind him, so for the time being I think Rafa’s job is safe.” He was asked if the game was do or die, and said: “It could be, but again, who would sack the manager at the moment?”
The good point Aldridge made is that nobody even knows how long the current regime will be in place, or whether a takeover will actually go through, so in turn nobody knows who will be in charge of decision-making as far as the manager’s future is concerned: “They don’t know who is going to run the club in a month or two weeks’ time, there is speculation about DIC buying Gillett and Hicks out, you just don’t know so for the meantime I just think you need to stick by the manager.”
The league is the other priority now, with the second leg of the Champions League three weeks off. Liverpool are three points off fourth with a game in hand and superior goal difference, but they really need to qualify for the Champions League next season if the owners do stay on. If they don’t players will need to be sold to pay off the debts the club has: “The manager has got to motivate the players to do a massive job and keep in that fourth place spot to ensure European qualification for next season,” said Aldo.
Another name on Grobbelaar’s list was Sammy Lee, yet Sammy has been linked with the job of assistant to Rafa and is known to be on good terms with him. Would Sammy stab Rafa in the back like that? It seems unlikely.
Other former players have jumped on the bandwagon, including some not mentioned by Grobbelaar, but as none of them have ever managed at the top level, or even been involved to any great extent as a member of a top side’s coaching staff, their words are a little out of order. Some speak passionately, there’s no doubt about that, but others speak only for the little fee they get for their headline-attracting quotes. And as Grobbelaar’s comments show, many of them don’t even seem to be taking much of an active interest in the actual goings on at the club now.
Far too many critics have been looking for the chance to stick the knife into Rafa, and a sign of how bad things have become is that after getting over the near-miss of Jurgen Klinsmann being our boss some fans are actually starting to warm to the idea of Martin O’Neill as manager, others actually hoping for the second-most-despised opposition manager in recent history – Jose Mourinho. The man who put the plan together for last night’s victory needs more support, not more attacks.
Supporters need to support more, and not just the manager. Rumours of certain players falling out with the boss aren’t helpful, but the way it divides the fans is how it is most harmful. So get behind every player, regardless of the rumours, and let Rafa deal with any dissent in the dressing room. And someone at the club needs to help him with that too. It’s time he was allowed an assistant – Pako has officially left the club now, so what’s the hold-up? In the summer, whoever is in charge of the club needs to be honest about the transfer dealings that go on. If it’s not as much as Rafa had hoped for, admit it, and admit that pushing for the league isn’t something that can be expected by the club until the stadium is complete. A statement like that at the end of last season, after informing Rafa of that truth first, could have made a huge difference to this season.
If on the eve of Athens fans had heard a rumour it was to be Rafa’s last game, that he’d accepted a job offer from Real Madrid and had tendered his resignation due to broken promises over transfer funding, there would have been outrage. How could the owners lose us such an important manager? Nine months later and we’re in danger of that actually happening, of the manager actually taking a job back in Spain if offered one, because he’s been through far too much at Anfield in the last nine months. And some fans now seem happy to let that happen.
Three years into Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United and some supporters and many journalists were calling for his head. A banner was displayed at Old Trafford: “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta-ra Fergie.” If only their board had listened, because dislike or despise him, Ferguson’s perseverance paid off, the stability the board allowed their club to have paid off, and their faith was repaid. United soon started to win the league on a regular basis, as Liverpool went from manager to manager, fans panicking more and more with each passing year as United got closer and closer to Liverpool’s record.
Let’s see what Rafa can do with what’s left of this season, but with it being pretty much written off thanks to events orchestrated in America, Rafa should be allowed to start next season as this was one had been intended to when the owners were first revealed to us. That means his rotation policy can continue, with quality players waiting to step in as needed.
Support the manager – support the players – support the club.