Benitez Can Reflect On A Season Of Liverpool Gains...
In a season of more twists and turns than a ride on a fairground rollercoaster, Liverpool FC can reflect on a year of almost resolute transformation, of unbridled continuity and; most importantly, title challenging authority.
The Reds transformation has been clearly demonstrated by their hounding of Manchester United in the closing stages of this year's Premiership title race. Gone is the indecision and the numerous team and tactical changes from Senor Benitez, instead, a team with renewed vigour, confidence and strength has emerged from the ranks of our Spanish conquistador's squad.
Indeed, it is already documented that Xabi Alonso's renaissance in this Liverpool side has contributed invaluably to the Reds cause this season, his expert passing and distribution being the foundations on which the skyscraper that is Gerrard and Torres is laid.
Had Alonso shown this type of form in his previous two seasons for the Merseyside giants, then the vultures that have circled overhead for the signature of our artista, may well have been more vociferously fended off last July, rather than whole-heartedly encouraged by Rafa Benitez.
Added to this, Yossi Benayoun has been a delight, proving that in the occasional absence of Gerrard, we have a playmaker who can step into those almighty shoes and become provider for the goal-machine that is Fernando Torres.
Allied to this, Lucas has, on occasion, stepped up to the plate and showed glimpses of the promise that his young talent is yet to yield. Emiliano Insua gave performances beyond his youthful years, and even Ryan Babel (in particular against Real Madrid) showed an adoring Anfield public that given a little more time, he could prove the answer to Rafa's left-sided dilemma.
Continuity has been achieved through little, indeed minor tactical adjustments this term as opposed to almost whole team changes being made (as in previous seasons). This has contributed to Liverpool showing the form that has guided them to just one defeat in their last 27 games in the Premiership—two in the whole campaign.
But this is where the real work has to start. Rafa has to prove that this is no flash in the pan, that we now have the where-with-all, knowledge and capability to push Manchester United all the way next season. Certainly, given that Benitez has total control over transfer policy at Anfield, then the onus and pressure really is on him to deliver.
I believe that this Summer's transfer dealings will be the most single important dealings in the last 20 years of Liverpool FC's history, and Benitez has only increased this pressure by insisting he has sole control over all comings and goings to Liverpool - there will be no hiding place if things go wrong next term.
Already the rumour-mill is in overdrive, with a plethora of players neither us nor Rafa Benitez has ever heard of presumably joining the Reds ranks. Gareth Barry is apparently back on radar (but not at the expense of Xabi Alonso so we're led to believe), Carlos Tevez, Glen Johnson, and even Fulham's outstanding Brede Hangeland are all headed to Anfield.
Let's hope messrs Hicks and Gillett have sorted their financial problems out if they are all to appear before an expectant press pack in July.
In a season that has seen Liverpool re-emerge as a title winning force, now is not the time for a flush out, this is the time to stabilise and assess. One or two signings are the key now, and I believe that Benitez knows this. I expect another right-sided full-back to arrive at Anfield this Summer, definitely Gareth Barry and another forward. Job done.
The reason that Liverpool now have title-winning potential (and it is just potential), is that Rafa Benitez has this season refrained from over exhuberance in his squad selection.
Gone are the days of wholesale changes, instead what we are seeing is continuity not seen since the heady days of Kenny Dalglish's tenure, when the team, even if beaten on a Saturday, would be given another game to try and redeem themselves. More often than not it worked.
Benitez, however, would see a defeat as another chance to get the Master Tactician's board out, and see a player's poor performance as another way of justifying this.
Now, it is a patient game Rafa is playing. In the last 12 matches, the only changes made were often enforced ones through injury, although it has to be said that Benitez's decision to play Martin Skrtel at full-back against Middlesborough was mind-blowing to say the least.
Other than that, it has been pretty much "same again boys", as Liverpool have cruised to ten wins, a draw and one defeat in their last twelve (two defeats in their last 28). This is not a coincidence.
Reds fans wherever they may be have longed for a return to the days when Liverpool FC were regarded as the benchmark for all Clubs. That heady era may now be gone, but a return to the time when the Reds were one of the most feared outfits in the World is most definitely on the cards.
Even Gary Neville, that most revered of persons on Merseyside has admitted (albeit through gritted teeth) that Liverpool are back, and the team most likely to prize the crown away from the gnarled fingers of the Old Trafford faithful.
And that, people, is praise indeed.
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