Article taken from LFC Official site at
Paul Tomkins 23 March 2009
Sloppy, disjointed, lacklustre. Thankfully, this was only injury time; the preceding 90 minutes were electric, the Kop ecstatic.
It's fair to say that we all know who the big Liverpool stars are. Home-grown lads Gerrard and Carragher win countless plaudits, and rightly so. And Fernando Torres is idolised.
But almost five years in, this is now very much Rafa's team.
It is one that he has fully shaped. From his predecessor's days, only Gerrard and Carragher remain in the first team, albeit in different positions to where they played up to 2004.
(As an aside, only one other player remains from the days of Gérard Houllier: Sami Hyypia endures as a valuable squad member; one I hope to see at Anfield until he's 40. He has that naturally lean look that saw Teddy Sheringham go on to the same age, and with little pace to lose and much intelligence to use, I see no end in sight for the big Finn, if he plays in a good team. If I were him, I wouldn't want to be in a ropey defence at that age.)
Anyway, this side is about much more than the three much-vaunted stars. It is, in every sense of the word, a team.
The next three most appreciated players are probably Reina, Mascherano and Alonso; a trio who, in my opinion, are as good as anyone in the league in their respective positions.
Of the three, Mascherano is the only one to struggle a bit this season, perhaps as a result of the Olympic games. But in recent weeks he's been immense. For a little man he's a real giant.
Goalkeepers get the lion's share of the credit for clean sheet records, but the team clearly plays its part. Even so, Reina deserves great acclaim for reaching 100 clean sheets faster than any other Liverpool keeper.
Not only that, he is one of the most creative keepers, too. A clearance to him is a chance to start a move, not merely eradicate danger or get rid of the ball. No-one can match his distribution. Liverpool play some great passing football, but rightly aren't afraid of a direct ball either. Mixing things up is vital.
I have also always been a massive fan of Xabi Alonso. But the previous two seasons were disrupted by injury and led to indifferent form, certainly by the standards he set in his first two campaigns. Thankfully he's not only back in form this season, but better than ever. He's a joy to watch.
Of the six players named so far, four were signed by Benítez, while the other two he remodelled. They have his stamp all over them.
Another near-faultless player is Martin Skrtel, who had a nightmare start against non-league Havant & Waterlooville (that cost me the last of my hair), but has barely put a foot (or his close-shaven head) wrong since. Daniel Agger, an immensely talented centre-back I love to watch, has struggled to dislodge the Slovakian, even in his few periods of full fitness after two bad injuries.
I try to laud the more unsung heroes, often because rather than given credit they can find themselves unfairly criticised.
Some players will split the opinion of the fans, simply because we all appreciate different things. But you have to learn to appreciate what it is that individuals offer, and how they compliment one and other. You need contrasting styles, different strengths.
I do still despair at the minority who focus on Dirk Kuyt's shortcomings rather than his attributes. For a centre-forward he's not especially prolific, but for a wide midfielder he contributes massively. His movement is superb, largely because he mixes intelligence with great stamina and heart.
And in the last two years, he has scored an incredible amount of important goals.
His finishes took the Reds to the semi-final of the Champions League last season, and into the group stages this time. He also took two massive penalties at Goodison Park last season, the second in injury time to win the game.
Rather incredibly, this year his 10 goals have all been vital: either the team's first in a match, which he's done seven times, and/or late, late goals to help win games for the Reds (four times) and salvage a draw (once). Go and check: not a single 'luxury' or consolation goal in there.
Ten solid gold goals.
Some goalscorers rack up high figures in routs, or bang one in when the opposition is easing off with a big lead, but goal difference aside, they can be meaningless. Kuyt's great strike against Villa was just the latest in a long line of telling contributions.
While Kuyt offers a bit of everything on the right flank, on the left Albert Riera has usurped Ryan Babel as the tricky left-winger.
I despaired at some fans recently writing off the Spaniard after a sticky couple of months, but anyone with eyes could surely appreciate his skill and awareness in the first half of the season.
English football is gruelling, and while Riera had adapted to the pace of the game in terms of time on the ball (perhaps due to his four months at Man City in 2006), it's another challenge to keep bright and bubbly for 10 months of unrelentingly tough matches; even the artless teams make you work hard in England.
So remember, form is temporary, class is permanent.
This also applies to Alvaro Arbeloa, who started with a bang by marking Lionel Messi out of both legs against Barcelona in 2007, after only arriving that January.
His first half-season was a big success, but last year I was less impressed. However, he has responded in real style, and after a very good season so far has been better than ever in recent weeks, particularly in getting forward with skill, pace and energy.
All of the players listed above are pretty much regular starters. It's a right they've earned, but there can be no doubt that it's harder for players who are in and out of the side.
It's virtually impossible to keep international-class talents happy as bit-part players. Liverpool wanted to keep Peter Crouch, but with his contract running down he opted for regular football, which I understand and respect.
He knew he would never find his best form in and out of the side, but equally that he would never displace a fit Fernando Torres.
It's impossible to say either way, but I suspect had he still been at Liverpool, the Reds would have picked up more points during Torres' spells on the sidelines, and helped as a sub in some of the draws, but that's life.
One player who might have felt frustrated but accepts the situation is Yossi Benayoun. In the first half of the season he wanted more playing time, which is a healthy desire, but in the second half of the season, before injury struck, his form was earning him it. In that sense, he's been the perfect squad player.
Then there's Fabio Aurelio, who has been in and out of the side due to injury more than anything else. It seems he still can't play a lot of games in quick succession, but the left-back spot appears to be his right now (although Dossena is still adjusting, and Insua will only get better, at just 20).
Until this season I felt the Brazilian was a 'good' player at best. He had that great game against Arsenal, in the 4-1 win, but then his Achilles' tendon snapped. It seemed he'd regularly come in to the side after an injury, looking short of match sharpness, then get injured again. And despite a great free-kick technique, they never seemed to trouble the keeper enough.
This season he's shown me that he's a much better player than I believed, which goes to show two things: players can improve even at 29, and after three years in England; and that the manager will know what his players are capable of, even if they are not delivering at a specific point in time. At both ends of the pitch he's been superb, and looks an absolute bargain.
Part of the challenge a manager faces is having everyone fit at the same time, and everyone in form at the same time. There's no magic wand to do this.
Right now, it's hard to find a Liverpool player out of form; part of this is down to a shared confidence, but also down to fitness.
Confidence on the ball often comes from your own sense of physical well-being. Tired or partially-injured players will naturally make more mistakes, which then negatively affects their confidence, and the cycle turns vicious.
When preparing for this season, Benítez and his staff had Fernando Torres, after a long and intense first season in England, late back due to his further efforts for Spain. With him were several other colleagues, as the Reds suffered most in terms of the lack of a summer break.
Then you had Mascharano and Babel, who were two of Rafa's biggest buys, jetting off to Japan for the Olympics, with the latter at the time still not fully recovered from the injury sustained for Holland earlier in the summer. Subsequently neither found their top form in a game for Liverpool before March. Coincidence?
Torres then picks up a series of hamstring injuries, mainly with Spain, and Gerrard sustains several niggling problems. Skrtel misses several months, while Agger is finally injury free but lacking match fitness. Benayoun is Liverpool's best player in February but then misses March. Insua, after four excellent games, is taken by Argentina to the South American U20 championship.
You can talk about the strength of the squad, and the tactics or selections of the manager, but it often gets overlooked how having fit and firing players can make all the difference. And this year, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have been more adversely affected by injuries to their key players than United, who have a bigger squad anyway.
Liverpool are playing no differently of late in terms of tactics, but now enough players are injury free and sharp. And rather than miss great chances, they're all flying in right now, making this supposedly cautious side the Premiership's top scorers (and England's top scorers in Europe), even with Torres missing more games than he's played and the sale of one of the strikers.
It shows how good this team really is, now that the key men are fit and enough of them are on song. And that has stoked life into the title charge.
My suspicion is that Manchester United might probably still edge it, aided by the timing of this international break (just as they seem to be self-destructing) and Liverpool's infinitely harder draw in the Champions League, that will test the fitness and hunger of the Reds to the limit, not to mention Chelsea too.
But even if they do edge it (and they'll probably enjoy it all the more because of our raised hopes), they would do well to stop and think about the statement made by Liverpool Football Club in the past fortnight, added to the clear progress made overall this season.
To quote the Kop choir, the Reds are coming up the hill, boys. The Reds are coming up the hill.