Gracias Senor Rafa

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Our run of form since the demolition of Fulham has been some heartening stuff. It’s great to see our strikers finally putting their chances away and the whole team in general back to the form that has seen us dominate and comfortably win games earlier in the season. It’s great testament to our boss that we’ve picked it back up again and look set for a strong finish and another chance to knock Chelsea out of cup competition. The English press, neutrals and pundits seemed quick to judge our Spanish Genius but slow to delve out praise when they’re proven wrong, which happens. A lot. So listen up ‘“ you know who you are ‘“ here are ten reasons why Rafa should be getting an extra large crate of Sangria from each and every one of you come the end of the season.

Zonal Marking ‘“ often berated last season and on the odd occasion we’ve conceded from corners or free kicks this season. Many suggested you simply couldn’t employ this system effectively in the Premier league at the highest level; others berated the boss for forcing it on our players just because it worked in Spain. Take a look at our defensive statistics for this season and enjoy your first slice of humble pie.

Peter Crouch ‘“ great vision again from Rafa, who took a lot of stick (as did Crouch) from just about all corners when we bought the guy. Even some Liverpool fans suggested the 7.5million we ‘˜wasted’ would have been better off subsidising Owen’s return. Hopefully detractors are happy to shut up now, with Crouch proving that he can add a nice goal return to his collection of statements from opposition defenders who admit they ‘˜hate’ playing against the big guy. In contrast Newcastle has ended up paying over £2million per goal for our old wonder-kid, and only one of these actually gained them any points in the Premiership. I’d put money on our gentle giant having just as big an impact as Mikey for England in the summer as well.

Harry Kewell ‘“ Rafa can be ruthless when he wants to be, but had obviously seen enough in a player who consistently underperformed for two years to persist. Harry has seen a new lease of life, a first-choice spot in the team and is now one of the first names on our strongest 11 team sheet.

Ruthlessness ‘“ not something Rafa has really taken stick for, but one of the most frustrating aspects of Houllier’s reign. For the most part Rafa is happy to admit when he’s wrong and ship out players who don’t fit the side instead of steadfastedly playing them every game, costing us points and prizes.

Respect ‘“ the players know the gaffer doesn’t take any sh*t, to such an extent that training ground bust-ups, people being dropped to the bench because of arguments with the boss and other feudal incidents that tend to affect just about every other Premiership club at one time or another just aren’t an issue.

He ain’t no whinger ‘“ how refreshing is it to see Rafa rarely ever complain about referees, dirty tactics, diving, cheating and other factors that are the cancer spreading through our beautiful game, catalysed for the most part by the governor of the mad Russian’s latest plaything.

No promises ‘“ Rafa doesn’t like to look too far forward or set out ‘˜five-year plans’. This way you don’t look stupid if you don’t hit them in time. Our ‘˜next game’ mentality obviously appeals to the players and Rafa does a great job of getting the most from every man match to match as a result.

Tactical know-how ‘“ we’ve had a fair few bosses who employ, how shall we say, questionable tactics in their approach to games. Rafa is a tactical genius, and we’ve seen a greater impact from his formations, substitutions and selections than from anyone else in many a year, most notably in Europe last season.

Wing-back formation ‘“ he clearly wants to get this down-pat. It was tried on the odd occasion last season and has been more successful this ‘“ see our demolition of Newcastle away for proof. Instead of forcing it on the team over an extended period and dropping 15-20 points while they desperately try to learn Rafa’s ideas, he’s introducing it gently and obviously is very effective at getting his ideas across in training before trying it on the pitch. Expect to see more of this formation next season.

Training and discipline ‘“ rarely have we seen a squad of players as consistently fit as our bunch right now. This is taking into account the fact that we’ve been playing for far longer than everyone else, but Rafa’s training regime, often well-praised by players and coaching staff alike, is clearly the business when it comes to preparing the boys for a gruelling schedule.

Bonus point ‘“ Robbie Fowler. Enough said.

So all praise Rafa for what will undoubtedly be looked at as a successful follow up to our miracle Champions League winning season. Save any unlikely capitulation over the next few weeks, the experience gained by the players and staff over this season should set us up for an interesting 2006.

Paul Lester

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