Guest columnist Matthew Coates reflects on a good week for Liverpool FC.
WHAT a week it’s been! Four goals against Real Madrid, four goals against Manchester United at Old Trafford and now another four years of Rafa at the helm!
Our manager has come in for some serious stick this season, and I honestly don’t think (outside of Liverpool supporters) that he has been recognised for the job he has done in the past four or five years.
We all remember Liverpool being torn to shreds by Rafa’s Valencia outfit in 2002 but watching the performances against Real and United this week, we are beginning to see signs that the Liverpool team is becoming Rafa’s latest “Machine”.
Benitez has been harshly judged by the English media and subject to unrealistic expectations and criticised for ‘˜failing’ to bring a 19th title home to Anfield in his tenure thus far.
But as anyone, who looks at it objectively will realise, Benitez is far from ‘˜failing’ this target. What we have seen is a steady progression towards this goal and a season upon season improvement in the squad and, largely, in results.
Let’s take a look at the squad Rafa inherited:
Dudek, Carson, Kirkland, Henchoz, Hyypia, Traore, Carragher, Finnan, Warnock, Riise, Kewell, Gerrard, Smicer, Hamann, Biscan, Partridge, Potter, Baros, Cisse, Sinama-Pongolle and Mellor.
Compare that to today’s squad:
Reina, Cavalieri, Aurelio, Dossena, Insua, Degen, Arbeloa, Degen, Hyypia, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano, Leiva, Riera, Benayoun, Babel, Kuyt, Torres, Ngog
Not to mention a strong youth side consistently performing in the FA Youth cup.
The improvement is there for all to see, despite not having anywhere near the same spending power as Man United and Chelsea, Rafa has assembled a squad which has overtaken Arsenal and competing with the expensively assembled United and Chelsea squads.
As well as signing key Spanish talents such as Reina, Alonso and Torres (It is worth remembering that Torres, arguably the world’s best striker, was signed for around Â£21m while up the M62 Sir Alex will have spent over Â£60m on Tevez and Berbatov , should the Argentinean settle at Old Trafford.)- it has been the type of player Rafa has signed which has allowed us to keep up with the big boys without lavishing Â£30m on players here, there and everywhere.
Rafa likes professionalism. While we may not have the flair players that are sometimes required to unlock organised defences we have exceptionally hard workers, like Kuyt and Mascherano, and a first team squad which is bulging with leaders.
At the start of the season we had on the books the Irish captain Robbie Keane, the Israeli captain Yossi Benayoun, the Finnish captain Sami Hyypia, The Brazilian under 20 captain Lucas Leiva, former Athletico Madrid captain in Torres and, of course, England vice and team captain Steven Gerrard.
Add to these born leaders like Pepe Reina and Vice-captain Jamie Carragher and recently appointed Argentina captain, Javier Mascherano, and it is plain to see the kind of model professionals that Rafa targets.
The future looks bright at Liverpool too. The spine of our team is in place and will stand us in good stead for years to come. Reina is relatively young for a goalkeeper, and in Skrtel and Agger we look to have two top centre backs to carry the torch when the indomitable Hyypia and Carragher hang up their boots.
Gerrard and Alonso have at least 4 more seasons in them whilst Mascherano is still only 24. Then there is Torres who, worryingly for opposition defenders still has his peak years ahead of him.
People criticise the ‘˜flops’ that Benitez has signed but, he has been quick to rectify any mistakes he has made moving on those who couldn’t cut it with ruthless speed.
I look at the current squad and believe that the addition of just a few more top quality players could finally see us end the wait for Premier League title. We clearly require competition at right back, right midfield, and another top striker to allow us to cope with the strains of competing for all four major trophies.
We do not have the revenue of Manchester United but when the new stadium eventually comes to fruition, this coupled with the revenue from Rafa’s successes in the Champions League may mean we are able to compete in the transfer market too.
Until then I put my trust in Rafa to sign shrewdly this summer and continue to add strength in depth to a squad that is on the brink of greatness.
We have proved this season that we can now compete with our rivals by beating both Chelsea and United twice this season and drawing at the Emirates, putting us top of the Big Four mini-table.
We have been beaten only twice in the league this season and God only knows how we lost at White Hart Lane.
Injuries to Torres and Gerrard and too many home draws may have cost us the title this season but, as always under Rafa, the signs of progression are there and there should be genuine optimism for his next five years in charge.