Reflecting upon the opening two months of the season brings mixed feelings for Liverpool supporters. Domestically the reds are unbeaten, part of the top four (something usually attained after Christmas) and remain within striking distance of the league leaders. In Europe on the other hand, form has been hard to come by. An embarrassingly out-of-sorts display against Porto was eclipsed by a turgid showing at home to Marseille.
So why such indifference? Well according to the ‘experts’ [yes, believe it or not, this term is reserved for the likes of Paul Merson!] rotation has proved the ultimate downfall.
Admittedly, at times the tinkering imposed could make a fighter out of Ghandi. It can be both baffling and infuriating. By no means though does this warrant ludicrous criticism of Rafael Benitez.
The key to rotating is replacing quality with quality. Chelsea can do this when they ‘rest’ Joe Cole but ‘work’ Florent Malouda. Manchester United also, when they withdraw Wayne Rooney but fill his (VERY BIG) void with the excellence of Carlos Tevez. Crucially, in my opinion, we now possess this same depth of class.
For example, if feeling the need to rest John Arne Riise the boss can now call on the services of Ryan Babbel. Threat for threat, value for value.
This is a far cry from seasons past. Most of us still cringe when the thought of Pellegrino for Hyypia comes to mind. Or, just as hauntingly, Diao for Alonso. Compromises of this ilk resemble a poor trade of car or girlfriend. In fact, it is like selling a Porsche in order to own a Nissan Sunny. Worse still, wife swapping Rihanna for Jade Goody. But when you have two Rihanna’s at your disposal there is no need for the lame alternative. Unfortunately, Rafa has yet to fully grasp this equation.
The best example of this came against the struggling French outfit. Including Sebastian Leto to face Marseille was particularly bemusing. To label it a surprise is like calling Hurricane Katrina a slight breeze.
Obviously, the rookie Argentine deserves time to settle but worryingly he projected a fair resemblance to Antonio Nunez down the left-wing. A sight no Liverpudlian cares to witness.
Therefore it is not just about boasting riches but knowing when to flaunt the fortune. Away to Reading in the League Cup is fine, against a top European side in a must-win encounter is simply not.
Having said this, all managers have their flaws. Thankfully, Benitez holds fewer than most. Any fan for one second contemplating complaint should cast their minds back to 2004.
The club as a whole had stagnated. Houllier’s reign had been curtailed. With its passing came the realisation of mediocrity. Divine intervention, rather than Rick Parry, blessed us with Rafa. And since … well, success.
Hard though it is for fair-weather supporters to digest, we were painfully insignificant back then. A title challenge was as much a reality as an Elvis comeback tour. Fast-forward three years and we are back. Granted, we remain titleless but trophies have arrived, as too regular Champions League football. We have not simply bored the likes of Barca, but beaten them. We have broken-up the monitmy of the top three and attracted true skill in the shape of Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres.
Under the guidance of lesser coaches this would have been nigh-on impossible.
When Bill Shankly was appointed Liverpool manager in 1959 his task was a monumental one. The club he would eventually transform into a bastion of invincibility was languishing in division two, off the pace and out of sorts.
To claim we were in a similar state back in 2004 would be a gross overstatement but there are definite parallels. Instead of lambasting Rafa the fickle amongst us should acknowledge what a truly fantastic job he has done to date. Forget the slurs of the bitter walrus (aka Sam Allardyce) and realise how lucky we are right now.
We may not win the championship this season, or next for that matter. But we are progressing.
A side forced to field Igor Biscan in central midfield does not become Champions in three years, no matter how many dollars are thrown at it. Patience and trust are pivotal from here on in.
This current dip in form is just that, a dip. It is by no means a crisis and rotation is not the sole reason behind its longevity.
Victory over Everton would be the perfect tonic. We owe them, just as we owe Rafa our total backing.