Liverpool FC Steady the Ship But Manchester United Loom on the Horizon

Nabeel KhokharCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2010

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MARCH 18:  Steven Gerrard of Liverpool celebrates scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot with his team mates during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16, second leg match at Anfield on March 18, 2010 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In the last week, Liverpool FC and their manager Rafa Benitez have steadied their ship following the dismal display that resulted in the Reds losing to Wigan Athletic just over ten days ago.


Last season, the men for Anfield were the darlings of the media, with sparkling displays of attacking football against the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United. A year later, there are precious few positive headlines written about the Reds.


However, with improving displays and wins against Portsmouth and Lille, in which seven goals were scored and only one conceded, the waters seem to have calmed.


Against Portsmouth, Liverpool showed that they are capable of playing flowing, attractive, and attacking football, albeit only when they are allowed to by Benitez.


There are several reasons as to why Liverpool played such beautiful football in the later stages of last season culminating in a sustained challenge on the Premier League title.


One of the leading explanations is that Rafa took the reins off his team and allowed them to express themselves. They delighted fans with stunning football that Real Madrid, the eventual champions of the Premier league and all others that came their way just could not handle.


The team oozed confidence and played with a swagger that they have failed to come even close to this season.


From the kick off Liverpool attacked the opposition. They came out of the blocks like a race horse in a sprint and ended so many games, as a contest, well before the later stages of matches.


This season, fans expected the Reds to pick up where they left off, but it was not to be. A few poor results led to Benitez going back to his cagey, defensive, and sometimes overly tactical approaches and methods. This led to the team losing the sparkle they had so wonderfully attained last term and they went into their shells.


The loss of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard for far too many matches than expected, robbed the team of its match winners and the performances became stale and the results dipped.


And as is always the case, a vicious cycle ensued and Rafa became even more defensive, shackling his team’s attacking instincts in order not to lose games. Ironically, this led to the results that the gaffer wanted to avoid—draws and losses to teams that should have been disposed of.


Against Portsmouth, Benitez picked what was arguably his most aggressive line up of the season to date. A home game against the league’s bottom club, whose season was already over, should have warranted a less tactical and defensive team. And Rafa, rightly so, obliged.


With Glen Johnson returning at right back, Liverpool’s attacking options automatically expand. But finally, Benitez dispensed with the need for two defensive central midfielders, with Lucas Leiva taking a place on the bench. His replacement, Alberto Aquilani, playing in a more advanced role, shone and finally showed a glimpse of the player he is.


And with the wings being patrolled by Maxi Rodriguez and Ryan Babel, the Reds took on a far more menacing look.


The performance was inspired, individuals stood out and overall the players seemed to enjoy themselves. Even their body language was different. It was a rare sight to see the joy on the face of Babel when he scored.


The happiness that erupted from Aquilani when he found the net for the first time in a Liverpool shirt made the fans smile and cheer all the more viciously. And even the venom of Torres’s shot for the final goal had more sizzle than before.


Liverpool Football Club was playing ‘football’ again.


Many will say that the opposition did not pose much threat, but Liverpool still had to come out and play and beat them. And this they did because they were given the freedom to by their manager.


The opposition in the form of Lille did place the Reds against a team far more formidable than lowly Portsmouth. And although Benitez went back to his favoured Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva midfield pairing, fans would like to think that was more due to the unavailability of Aquilani, through virus, than a return to negative tactics.


Liverpool's attacking mentality was highlighted by an astonishing statistic. In a European home game, the Reds had less possesion than the opposition but created more than twice the number of chances and four times as many shots on goal.


More evidence of the manager's attacking intent, was the passing of the 60th minute without the usual Benitez substitution, as is usually expected.


The game was delicately poised with Liverpool holding a 2-1 aggregate lead. A single goal from Lille would have spelt disaster for the Reds. Benitez was expected to attempt to hold on to the lead and see out the game with a series of defensive substitutions.


But the usual time for a Rafa change came and went. And when the change did come, low and behold, it was an offensive one!


Babel made way for the attack-minded Yossi Benayoun. Benitez should be applauded for his approach in seeking the killer goal, rather than looking for a defensive end to the game.


His positive move was rewarded with a late goal from Torres, who may well have usually found himself warming the bench by this time.


Rafa Benitez, is arguably, the most tactically astute manager Liverpool have had since Bob Paisley and he has shown that he has the potential to take Liverpool once again to the pinnacle of English and European football.


This season has seen Benitez become overly cautious due to the weight of huge expectations coming off of last season. This has seen, essentially, the same team that came so close to its first Premier League title, whimper and wilt.


Benitez and the fans have seen what the team can do, the way they can play, and the enjoyment they gain from being allowed to play attacking and expansive football.


The Spanish tactician should place a little more trust in his players and allow them to go out and express themselves.


On the horizon is a team that excels in self expression and in attacking and penetrative football. And more importantly, Manchester United will not place eleven players behind the ball and defend. They attack teams and play to win.


Liverpool find it hard to break down teams that just simply defend against them, rest assured the Champions will not do this. They will play football, and significantly this will in turn allow Liverpool to play football; if the manager allows them to.


Rafa Benitez would do better to go to Old Trafford and give his team the freedom to go toe to toe with United than to go back to the cagey "do not lose at any cost" style. We have seen the results of both these approaches.


Fans would love to once again, celebrate a win over their great rivals. However, if we were to go down, I would rather go down fighting and attacking, than hurry back down the M62 after another soul-less, uninspiring, and insipid performance.