Risky Rafa edges past Wigan

Liverpool 2-1 Wigan

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Eight years ago I left Blighty on a one-year working visa jaunt to Australia, and at one point during the trip visited a casino in Surfer’s Paradise to try my luck on the tables. Despite being a rather rational, critical thinker, and therefore being aware of the odds of winning at typical casino games (and the ways to improve them to the extent that will maximise my chance of winning), I had a shocking night and was left with $2 from the $100 I took with me. Yes, I know, I’m not a big gambler, for these very reasons.
With this $2 I decided to put a hopeful bet down on a single number at the nearest roulette table, and since I’m not superstitious about anything other than random chance, opted for the number (and colour) of my favourite Reds player to date, Robbie Fowler.

Red number 9 it was. And lo and behold, the bet came through. A 35-1 chance, which was lucky, but nothing that hasn’t been seen before. What happened next was strange though, since (unknown to me) the croupier leaves the original bet on the table in Australia, and simply hands you your winnings. While celebrating my unlikely win, I was handed another $70 by the croupier, at which point I tried to explain, while fighting off one or two drunken people who where exclaiming in delight in my direction, that I had already taken my winnings.

Red number 9 had come up again while my original bet was still on the table, and all of a sudden I was up on the night through the most unlikely of coincidences.

The odds of this happening are over 1000-1, but I digress.

As unspectacular as my $2 bet was in the grand scheme of gambling success stories, I was not in a position to be able to spend more than the money I took in (well, I could have gone to the cash machine, but that would have put at risk my next week travelling and seeing the sights. I only use this as an example of how I attempted to cope without sacrificing my long-term plan – that, and being able to use an anecdote that involved Robbie Fowler).

On seeing our starting line-up today I was nothing short of dismayed at the way our manager appeared to treat what should be a comfortable three points on typical form, but at the moment is as much a ‘must-win’ game as any top-four clash we have encountered this season. Losing this game would have been unthinkable, if only for the furore that would have surrounded it post-match.
The undoubted pressure that Rafa has been under would make most men play their best eleven (increased risk of injury due to fatigue or not) without a second thought, but whatever factors influenced his decision to leave Aquilani and Torres on the bench (at the time of writing I’m still not sure what happened to Johnson), there can be little doubt that considering the current pressure on the team, Benitez has some pretty big balls.

To take a chance like this could have gone one of two ways, and believe you me if we hadn’t won tonight I’ll admit I’d be singing an entirely different tune. Whatever the reasons for the first choice eleven, Rafa clearly had faith in the players he put on the pitch. Faith that can only be derived from a single-minded confidence in what he is doing. Faith in the players that he trains with day in, day out, and a knowledge of an individual’s readiness for a game. Faith in the bigger picture of what is a long, arduous season.
I will readily admit that this analysis of the game comes from rose-tinted spectacles, and yes, it is ‘just Wigan’, but this article isn’t so much an analysis of our performance (even though we played some beautiful football in the first half, with two or three of our ‘best’ players missing) as that of Rafa’s single-minded approach to taking our club forwards.

Whether you have faith in the manager or not, few could dispute that Rafa has an unerring ability to block negative criticism from all quarters from his mind, and stick to the approach he has decided to take to bringing success to our team, and for that he surely deserves credit.

Detractors would call him stubborn, but that would be a short-sighted way of judging a manager that undoubtedly has the best intentions of our club at heart. Perhaps we ‘armchair’ managers would have done things differently, but there’s nothing to say that starting Aquilani earlier would have influenced results, or that we would have been in a better position by playing a different team at various times this season. It’s all opinion and conjecture, and of course we are entitled to analyse and criticise as fans of our beloved club.

NGOG (Photo from fOTOGLIF)

Ngog got the ball rolling tonight, and no doubt this will be swept under the carpet by most against a team that Spurs thumped 9-1. From a personal point of view though, it still surprises me that certain critics are lambasting Benitez for not buying Owen in the transfer window. NGog is undoubtedly a better prospect, not just because of his age, but because of his goal return this season, and more importantly, scoring goals when it matters. Hat-tricks are all very nice when the result ultimately means nothing to the team, but Man.City aside (with the benefit of freakish injury time and a great pass), what has Owen done for Man.U this season that another reserve player wouldn’t have done? These are the unfair standards by which Rafa is judged, by one-eyed pundits that aren’t prepared to absorb statistics and actual fact, and get overly absorbed in the romanticism of something like ‘scoring a hat-trick’ by a past England legend. Similar, in fact, to the way as we get criticised for selling Bellamy whenever he has a good game, or Keane whenever he scores a couple of goals (yet the times they are bench-ridden or ineffectual are ignored without a second thought).

I will finish with some brief analysis of the game in regards to NGog. This guy has an unerring ability to be in the right place at the right time, and may well have doubled his (already impressive) tally this season with more experience and a dash of luck. He had a blinder tonight, considering his age and experience, and for all intents and purposes, most of his goals have been scored at very important times during a game. I can see real potential here, and as some other commentors have suggested, if he had been picked up by Wenger at Arsenal, the country would no doubt have been going ga-ga for his potential.

We’ve picked up a vital three points today despite our very obviously fragile confidence and in the first half particularly, I thought we played some great pass-and-move football. With Pompey next you’d expect another three, and once our best players get enough minutes under their belt to recover adequately from injuries and reach their best form, I’m confident that Rafa’s ‘guarantee’ of a top four finish will be comfortably realised. Our form during the final third of a season during his reign is consistently excellent, and if we can reach the New Year in fourth place, or within a whisker, we will surely (injuries permitting) be looking to really push for a string of results in 2010.

Perhaps then, Rafa’s gambles, in games like tonight, will appear to be a rather astute way of managing an injury and confidence-ravaged team.

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