Rafalution on course

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The defeat of Man United this weekend was Liverpool’s 20th game at home – in all competitions – this season. Of those 20 games, 17 have resulted in clean sheets for the home side. A hugely impressive statistic.

In fact, only 6 goals have been conceeded during those 20 matches – four of them being by Chelsea. And one was Xabi Alonso’s own goal against Birmingham a few weeks ago. For the record, the other was Valentin Iliev for CSKA Sofia back in August!

Rafa Benitez has built his impressive side upon a solid back four and it is starting to show, of course the record breaking run of consecutive clean sheets is also evidence of that.

Benitez though isn’t a man to settle for that, and despite Liverpool’s seemingly problematic area being in attack, the Spaniard’s last two signings have been centre backs – in the form of Daniel Agger and Gabriel Paletta.

Fair enough both are seen as ones for the future but it further goes to show how Benitez is building something special at Anfield and won’t settle for short term success. Last week he described Paletta as a potential new Jamie Carragher – he best start learning Scouse and fast then!

Before Benitez arrived we had yet to see the best of Steve Finnan in a Liverpool shirt. I would now say we have, and Ive been mightily impressed. Not only has he proved he is more than capable defensively, attacking wise he has linked up superbly well with Gerrard down the right in recent weeks. His crossing is what any Premiership winger would be proud of – and with either foot too. Saturday saw him cross for Crouch’s header and before that it was Pongolle’s head on the end of a cross at Luton. There’s been more too, off the top of my head, Morientes last season, Heskey year before that at Fulham.

Another player who many may have predicted wouldn’t be playing such a huge part in Rafa’s back four is Sami Hyypia. A man who has played in all but one of Liverpool’s 48 games (Birmingham home) so far (including pre-season). A tower of strengh alongside Carra at the heart of the defence and looking fitter than ever.

The left back spot is still a little undecided with Rafa often opting to play Warnock or Traore in big away games but Riise’s performance on Saturday, for me, showed he can do the job there in the big games and I hope Rafa chooses to leave JAR there rather than throw him in to midfield. That’s not to say I don’t think Warnock is good enough – he just isn’t ready yet in my opinion.

Another reason for the impressive defence has to be the strength of those in front of them – starting with the midfield and the way thay now track runners from the middle and get from box to box. Even Harry Kewell does his fair share of defending now and looks a new man down the left.

But the signing of Sissoko has seen many attacks broken up in the middle and he is now starting to show he is learning not to get booked and maturing with each match. The influence of Didi Haman – another who was mighty impressive on Saturday – is no doubt providing experience for Momo.

And then there’s the man behind the back four – Pepe Reina – who looks a quality acquisition. An imposing figure who is built like the metaphorical brick shit-house and has installed belief into the defence.

Mind you, I’d hate to be controversial and upset all the whinging barstewards and say that the introduction of zonal marking has been an influence on all impressive defensive records.

Rafa now seems to have a solid back five and an impressive selection to choose from in midfield – with youth, talent and experience in the shape of any four from Alonso, Hamann, Gerrard, Kewell, Sissoko, Garcia. With extra back-up from Bolo Zenden, the impending arrival of Gonzales and the no-doubt signing of a right winger in the summer.

That leaves just one area left to be Benitez-ed fully, of course in attack. I’m confident Rafa knows what is needed and he will produce the goods this summer. There’s no need to speculate who will arrive and who will leave – even if most of us can take a bloody good guess at one departure!

What am I saying in all this? Well, watch out Chelsea because next year we really will mount a challenge, no matter what happens in the rest of this season.

 

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