(Comments Before The Match)
When Rafael Benitez first came to the club I was hopeful and optimistic as I am with every fresh wave at Liverpool Football Club. His record at Valencia had at least shown that he was capable of turning a club going nowhere into serious challengers for honours. At Liverpool he had the chance to turn a club flattering to deceive in claiming real honours into champions. By champions I’m referring specifically to the Premiership.
Now I was under no illusions. When Jose Mourinho won the Premiership in his first season at Chelsea, regardless of the millions spent on players, it was still a huge achievement. I cannot think off the top of my head of another manager achieving such a feat (although ironically given more time, the last guys to do it were both Liverpool managers – I believe Kenny Dalglish won it and also Joe Fagan won it in their first seasons at the club). When Rafa took over Liverpool, only a fan on hallucinogenic substances would have thought we could have won the Premiership in his first season. So as with any brother in their first season we’re just giving the guy a chance to settle in and see what his intents are.
Since then, however, his time at the club has been mostly about riding the crest of a Champions League victory and an FA Cup win without ever really threatening to win the Premier League. So he gets us to the Champions League final again, so what? Where it really matters he has not got us anywhere nearer to winning the main league. He’s been able to garner support during the issue of club ownership and support, but let’s face it for every Mascherano who’s thrived at the club – when he plays – there are perhaps three or four players that have not worked out. He has been frustrating for me to see as he’s been so annoyingly inconsistent whilst persisting with a rotation strategy that leaves me baffled.
We’re four points clear at the top of the table having beaten both Chelsea and Manchester United. You would have thought I’d have been happy with that position. The joke is that I’m actually not at all convinced that we deserve to be there or are playing well enough to stay there. Yesterday’s result typified that. Chelsea go to Britannia and play them off the park in their 3-0 win. Manchester United go there and are able to mess about for a bit before killing the game off and taking a typical 1-0 win home with them. We go there playing a club in the bottom three. A club who are one of the favourites for relegation and play ugly football playing a side who away from home know what it takes to suck up pressure and hit on the break to take the points that are necessary.
I was very confident that we would win that 3-0 without any problem. Not that we would play them off the park – we haven’t done that to another team for months. Just that Stoke are up for the beating to a club like us. So to come away from there only taking a point and failing to score against them again is unacceptable. It really isn’t good enough. If we dare win the Premier League with results like that and the other draws we’ve managed then it really is an indictment on the quality of the League especially proper champion winning teams like Chelsea and Manchester United.
I am very interested in the result of the game today and actually the best result for us is a Chelsea win. If United win it will give them immense confidence in their own ability and gather momentum in addressing their games in hand to overhaul the points difference between them and us. If it’s a draw the pressure still remains on us to make the most of our advantage and United can approach their games in hand with confidence that they’ve negotiated one of their rivals and not lost and can catch up with them whilst putting pressure on us. Chelsea beating United leaves the Red Devils with actual work to do if they want to make an indent on the outcome – not to say they couldn’t do it, but just to say that they would have to work even harder. It’s a result I can live with on two levels – one I don’t want Manchester United to win the Premier League which leads to two that if we don’t win it I’m happy for Chelsea to win it especially with the grief that they’ve had to endure since Mourinho left.
So all that would be bad enough to have to deal with. Then Rafael for reasons known only to him chooses to launch an attack on Sir Alex Ferguson. Here’s the thing – there’s just no need for it. It doesn’t help us at all. It only fuels Alex’s passion to win it to stuff another one to us. Regardless of however true the statement is, it’s just so counter-productive I seriously wonder what is going on in his head to say something like that. Look, everyone knows that Alex Ferguson has got away with loads of stuff in his time in football. That’s been the case for years – once the point in bringing it up now? For what? The FA to do something about it? More chance of hell freezing over. The comments were just so tragic that I seriously question Mr. Benitez’ judgement.
Sure, if we win the Premier League I’ll have to eat humble pie and admit that for all of my suspicion the brother has it in him to win the things that matter. That’s a long way away. That’s a trip to Old Trafford away. That’s a confrontation with Chelsea away. That is not a certainty by any stretch. If we don’t win it, then it should raise questions again about Rafael. He’s had plenty of chances to win it. He’s been able to pump money to investing in the squad but we’re not anywhere near the Chelsea and Manchester United standard. We got a great keeper, great defender, great holding midfielder, great midfielder and a great striker but we need to have better quality in other areas. Check the BBC’s Phil McNulty and his opinion on the issue in light of the game. Paul Wilson’s comments on the issue also make sense.
(Comments after the match)
So Manchester United put Chelsea to the sword. Beating your nearest rivals 3-0 at home sends a clear signal to the rest of the league that you are more than capable of reclaiming their crown. I still feel sorry for the grief Phil Scolari is getting from the fans, but I guess that comes with the high expectations from the club – unrealistically high especially because of how much has been invested in the club. That should be room for hope for clubs like Liverpool, Arsenal and Aston Villa to catch up with Chelsea as reality bites for them that success is not as easy as a few hundred million coming in. For Scolari, this season should be given for him to get settled into the league and then as of next season judge him by results, i.e. what trophies have you won. Obviously since when has the football world ever followed wisdom in its dealings, so why should I expect it to start now?
For United it’s great news – it gives them great confidence for the games ahead. For Liverpool – the ball is back in our court, if we can keep our nerve and remain solid at the back and take the chances we make then perhaps we can make this title race interesting. Nothing is impossible in this game. As a fan I can hope for the best. As a footballer observer with a bit of a knowledge of the game I can see the trophy staying at Old Trafford for another season – which is fair enough because it’s all about the best team winning.
I was thinking as I was walking home from church tonight. (What you didn’t think I’d slip in something about Christ in this whole entry? You obviously don’t know who I am!) I was thinking about how sometimes we ask for more stuff when we haven’t really made the best of the stuff we already have. Ferguson has been successful because he’s made the best of the players he has. Benitez has yet to emulate that success because he has not. There’s no point in asking for more stuff unless you prove yourself with the stuff you already have and I’m very certain Rafa has not made the most of the players at his disposal – Babel is wasted; Pennant is leaving because he wasn’t really given a fair run in the team; it is an absolute crime the way Keane has been used this season to date and players have come and gone who have never been given a chance to prove themselves. In essence Rafael has not to date made the most of what he has and if he doesn’t soon then it’s only fair that certain questions are asked and he is held accountable even as the parable of the talents highlights – you waste it, you lose it, you use it well you get more than you bargained for!
For His Name’s Sake