Benitez: Waking A Fading Giant

Posted by Garstonite on May 1, 2005, 08:23:55 PM

Liverpool fans may very well hate the fact that their club is seemingly remembered, now, solely upon their past achievements. But coming from a side that has won eighteen league titles and four European cups and yet, hasn’t won either of these trophies for fifteen and twenty-one years, sequentially, what can be expected?

With Man United, Arsenal, and now Chelsea and for one year, Blackburn stepping into the limelight, it’s only the treble season of 2000/2001 that has reminded us of what success actually is. Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, and the recently departed Frenchman, Gerard Houllier have all given their best shot at bringing Liverpool back to its former glory – all have brought glimpses, i.e. Souness winning the FA cup in 1992, Evans winning the, what was then called, the Coca Cola cup in 1995 and Gerard Houllier bringing in UEFA, FA and Worthington twice – yet none, however, have done what legends of the past, Shankly, Paisley, and for the six years he was in charge and without being able to have a proper shot at Europe, Dalglish, managed to do – maintain the high standards set, consistently.

Gerard Houllier famously stated, at the beginning of his reign that he had a ‘five-year plan’ for this club, in which he would return us back to the glory days of old. That lasted seven years, and despite promising and exciting moments, nothing really came of it in a durable basis. Rafael Benitez, at least, hasn’t made such mistake. Not only has he assured fans that he is in it for the long haul, but he also knows that anguished Liverpool fans need, and do have, patience and faith in him to deliver the goods, even though it will take time. Rome, after all, wasn’t built in a day. And under the Spaniards regime, in his first season, we lie fifth in the table and in the semi-finals of domestic football’s, without a doubt, biggest competition. And despite the inconsistency and let downs we find ourselves surprisingly content: content with the fact that we have got one of World’s peerless coaches, content with the fact that we have two of the greatest midfielders in Europe in Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, and content with the fact that, despite this season being capricious to say the least, we seem to be heading in the right direction.

We do have a squad heaving with potential and ability. On paper, when comparing Liverpool’s fully fit side, which has been a huge rarity this season, to those that the media and the pundits describe “the big three”, the gap isn’t as large as the league table suggests. Compared to Chelsea and Manchester United, we seem destitute over money, over Arsenal, we seem deprived of their teamwork and flair. But Benitez, especially earlier in the season, stated he’s concerned about Liverpool and Liverpool alone – it’s a superb attitude to have and we shouldn’t, as hard as it may seem at times, become covetous towards them.

We have a marvellous range of players, more than capable of bringing us back up to where we belong. Milan Baros, John Arne Riise, Steven Gerrard, Djibril Cisse, Xabi Alonso, Chris Kirkland, and Djimi Traore – players, this season, who have been regarded as first team regulars, and none of which have yet to even reach twenty five. An exciting and promising fact considering the bags of potential these players possess. Regardless of us possessing such talents, this season has been too inconsistent by the standards of Liverpool Football Club for a number of reasons. One, and although using excuses goes against everything Liverpool aim to be, the countless amount of injuries has broken the fluidity amongst the team. In the summer, including French striker Djibril Cisse, four new players arrived, along with two signed in the January transfer window. How can you expect a side new to one another to perform as a team, when they never get the chance to play together on a regular basis?

And with all the mentioning of purely the influx in young players to the side, you may argue that Mauricio Pellegrino and Fernando Morientes do not fit the bill. Wrong. They are merely providing the perfect balance. Apart from the glorious feat by Manchester United in the mid-nineties, when a side full of players in their teens and early twenties won the Premiership title, successful sides tend to have  a mix of young, energetic, vibrant players, and those that have ‘been around the block’. And what better way to prove my point is looking at our best achievement in the past fifteen years, the treble season. Gary McAllister, especially towards the end of the season had a tremendous impact – both by scoring vital goals and delivering inch perfect set-pieces. Gerard Houllier stated the obvious in saying, “He was my most inspirational signing.” Arriving at the club, aged 36, who would have thought he would have been the man to tilt a good team, into a great team? Admittedly, not me.

After affects of the Houllier days are still evident, nonetheless. Whether it was a whisper in the ear from the board, or genuinely through his own personal viewings, things have changed. Benitez was willing to allow players time to see if they could fit in with his new system, and yet offloaded misfits from the previous regime, El Hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou and Salif Diao in seven short months, with this, his actions have well and truly spoke louder than words. Those, along with Stephane Henchoz and the soon to be departed Vladimir Smicer, have all fallen victims to the Spaniards ruthlessness.

And it’s not surprising to see that the Swiss and Czech are both in their thirties.
What Benitez is building is a stronghold of potency, mettle and resolve for the future, ready to surmount domestic and European football’s finest and Benitez is targeting the frail youth system. Benitez, who has earlier spoke out in an interview regarding his concerns with the so-called strong youth set up: the under-eighteens sitting in last position, and the reserve side second from bottom, a surprise bearing in mind the team has been full of first team regulars due to the injury-hit season. It’s no wonder Benitez is distressed by such fact. With the FA discussing the possibility of a minimum amount of home-grown players necessary in every English team, and the ridiculously inflated prices of English talent – possessing four or five top-class English players is going to cost an arm and a leg, something Benitez has been quick to comment upon, I may add. And out of our current squad, it’s only Steven Gerrard, Chris Kirkland, Jamie Carragher, Steven Warnock and Neil Mellor are the only ones who have managed to make the breakthrough in competitions beside the Carling and, unfortunately the farce that was the FA cup. And out of that list, only two are likely to be chosen week-in-week-out.

Ever since Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher have come up through the ranks, we have sat back and seen stars from the likes of West Ham and Everton step up onto the big stage, but none from our notorious academy. Robbie Foy, Mark Smyth, Zak Whitbread, Jon Otsemobor and Darren Potter are spoken of highly by reserve manager Hughie McAuley. But the question that will obviously be asked swiftly after is, of course, ‘can they make it on to the big stage?’ There is a huge difference between impressing in one or two Carling cup games, and actually inputting solid displays at the highest level. None of them, as yet, have showed any signs of doing so. But youngsters today need to be nurtured carefully – spend a lot of time in the reserves, getting one or two appearances off the bench in the first team every now and then, or maybe even go out on loan with a side in need of their services. Just look around England’s lower divisions and see how many come from clubs highly esteemed in the Premiership.

Two, in which I purposely left out of the list above, are English youth stars, John Welsh and David Raven. Allegedly ‘too similar’ to Steven Gerrard, Welsh has had little look in when it comes down to the first team. Recently, however, with Benitez frantically searching around the reserve and youth sides, looking for a player good enough to make the grade, Welsh have had more opportunities to impress. Good vision, comfortable on the ball, nice touch – a tad Murphy-esque, in both his frame and his approach to the game. With the right attitude and patience, Benitez could very well groom him into a player who can slowly, but surely, adapt to this new system. Raven is a similar issue. Captain of the England under-twenties, along with his impressive displays in the Carling cup, Benitez must have to think long and hard regarding his overflowing options in the right back position. Otsemobor and Josemi are seemingly out of favour for one reason or another, it’s only the impressive Irishman, Steve Finnan’s, displays that have kept him from advancing on to the big stage. With the likelihood of a squad pruning in the summer, he will have to think long and hard about the options he has available to him in that particular position.

And talking of youngsters on offer to us, who can forget the two exciting prospects from France, Florent Sinama Pongolle, and Antony Le Tallec? The two players that are finely balanced between being Houllier’s legacy to this club, and being yet another example of the way he squandered precious money offered to him by the board. And it’s down to the man in charge now, Rafael Benitez, to decide which direction it leans. Firstly, they need to hold down a regular position. Both can play on the wing, as an attacking midfielder or as a striker, and don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have such versatility in your team, but they need to concentrate on being just one of those positions irrespective of whether or not that position changes when they travel with the French youth team. Benitez may allow them to mature into first team regulars, he may send them out on loan, or he may even see no future for them in his new system. It’s for him to decide, but Rafael is too knowledgeable and shrewd to allow players with so much potential, at such age, to slip through his grasp so easily. I expect to see these two more in the future.

But with all the talents buzzing around desperately trying to burst into the first team, what better judge is there to have on the matter than Rafael Benitez, a man who is going round the block so much now, he knows it like the back of his hand.

This is a new era in Liverpool Football Club’s long-lasting and illustrious history. It’s a new chance for everyone to show what they can do again, and everyone, I am sure will be desperately trying to impress. The long run in Europe has reminded everyone of why Liverpool are so special, and with the impressive displays mirrored on the terraces, it’s a magnificent way to remind the players precisely who they are playing for, and how much it means for us to be up there with the big boys.

People may also very well be aware of the fact that after the break up of the double Champions League finalist side Benitez finished fifth in the La Liga in his second season and then the following campaign he went on to win the title jumping four places in one fell swoop. To expect him to pull off a similar achievement at Liverpool would be seen as naïve. However, he himself has already admitted to making mistakes, which is a good sign -- the first stage of erudition is recognizing where you went wrong in the first place. He won’t make these faults again – expect to see Liverpool a lot closer to the leaders next season, and also expect our squad of players a lot fitter mentally, as well as physically. It’s not a coincidence the Spaniard uses the word ‘mentality’ a lot, because in the modern game, that’s as important as the players who use it. A ‘team’, and I emphasise the word ‘team’, can work miracles with togetherness, hard-work ethics and the right fortitude, not just in one or two games in which they pick and chose, but in all of them, in all competitions, regardless as to who is picked in the starting eleven. It will take time, but I have faith that Benitez will shape Liverpool Football Club, once again, into an indomitable force, detail by detail. The first step in his quest begins with the buttressing of our dwindling academy.

Benitez at the moment is talking the talk, next season and beyond, he’ll walk the walk.

© Garstonite 2005

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