17 September 2007

Rafa's rotation causing unwanted flashbacks

Norman Hubbard

Any unpleasant flashbacks would be entirely understandable. The last time Liverpool topped the Premier League it proved the prelude to Gerard Houllier's regime unravelling in spectacular fashion.
Skipper Steven Gerrard and Ryan Babel sit on the bench at Portsmouth.
The trio bought to deliver the title - El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou - rank among the best of ignominious failures, and Houllier's credibility never recovered. So Rafael Benitez may have had a sense of foreboding when he saw Liverpool perched atop of the league for the two-week international break.
Perhaps it was a wish to escape from that unfortunate historical precedent that prompted Benitez's team selection at Portsmouth. If Liverpool's first four games suggested the Spaniard had learned lessons from slow starts in his three previous seasons, the fifth resurrected any number of unwelcome debates, from Steven Gerrard's fitness to the issue of squad rotation. But for Jose Reina's prowess at saving penalties, they would have lost at Fratton Park, and that would have represented a typical early season result away from Anfield.
If Benitez's choices at Portsmouth were further evidence of his obstinate streak, they surprised nonetheless, especially given the need to maintain their momentum. Too often the autumn leaves have descended as Liverpool's title chances disappeared. That, at least, was understandable in Benitez's first season, when an element of trial and error was inevitable. As it was, seven points from five games proved an accurate indication of their Premier League fortunes as Liverpool limped to a final total of 58, though it was overshadowed by their Champions League victory.
However, defeat in three of their initial four away fixtures was revealing.
Cohesion on their travels, especially for teams still searching for an understanding after summer arrivals, has proved a constant difficulty. The initial success of Djibril Cisse, who scored on the opening day at Tottenham, and Milan Baros, on target in the following match against Manchester City, suggested, inaccurately, that a prolific partnership was in the making.
In hindsight, Benitez's greatest triumph from his first month was the installation of Jamie Carragher in the centre of defence. That Steve Finnan's opening four league games came in midfield, however, showed that the right-wing spot would be a point of contention, as it has been ever since.
The start of the following campaign displayed that defence was a priority. In Liverpool's first four Premier League fixtures, albeit pre-dated by a succession of Champions League qualifiers, the only goal at either end was Xabi Alonso's winner against Sunderland.
Yet the difficulties of a safety-first approach were illustrated on the road. After a stalemate against 10-man Middlesbrough on the opening day, the wait for an away win lasted until November. Moreover the attacking impotence these early-season results suggested, remained an issue. Peter Crouch did not score at all until December and Cisse finally opened his account in open play against Blackburn on October 15th. In a Premier League season where Liverpool conceded a mere 25 goals and scored just 57, their start provided a fair assessment of both their strengths and weaknesses.
But, given that Benitez had already had two seasons to assemble his squad, the 2006/07 season represented Liverpool's worst start. Four points from four starts contrasted with Manchester United's rapid emergence from the metaphorical blocks, but more damning was the accumulation of a solitary point from their opening six away games. Visiting Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton in that time hardly helped, but it was indicative of a lack of resolve on the road.
Moreover, while Gerrard's starting berth on the right of midfield dominated debate, Benitez's refusal to name the same side, hitherto regarded as an eccentricity with occasional benefits of brilliance, was widely condemned. In attack, it yielded no rewards: the first four Premier League games contained four strike partnerships, but no goal in open play from any of them.
A brief glance at those early-season misfortunes accentuates the differences with the current campaign. Last season, Liverpool's first league away win arrived in December; this, their second (at Sunderland, following victory at Aston Villa) in August. No forward was an ever present in the starting line-up for the first four fixtures in any of Benitez's earlier campaigns.
Fernando Torres has been key for the club so far this season.
Fernando Torres changed that this year, before his demotion to the bench at Portsmouth, providing an immediate answer to the questions about whether Liverpool were potent enough in the penalty area by figuring among the Premier League's current leading scorers. Moreover, while the team has been destabilised by previous summers' spending, Benitez had adopted a gradual approach to integrate recent arrivals.
The essential Torres aside, Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun, Lucas Leiva and Sebastian Leto were blooded more in the Champions League qualifiers against Toulouse. So, Torres aside, the side that reached the summit of the Premier League, was largely one that was accustomed to playing together. The solution seemed simple: win the game, and then rotate.
Then, however, came the trip to Portsmouth. Liverpool are not alone in often losing at Fratton Park - Manchester United have similar trouble on the south coast - so a draw can be portrayed as a point gained. In the context, however, it is two dropped, while old discussions are reopened.
Benitez has always given the impression that he has regarded the Gerrard issue as an irritating, unnecessary topic of conversation, yet leaving his captain on the bench for an hour scarcely succeeded. Nor, when Torres' credentials to become Liverpool's first player since Robbie Fowler to reach the 20-goal barrier in the Premier League seemed strong, did his omission prove a benefit.
Now, albeit having only dropped four points to their rivals' seven, Liverpool are only level with Chelsea and Manchester United. It still represents their best start under Benitez with, aided by a compliant Derby defence, 11 goals scored and, in open play, none conceded. Yet it could have been so much better and, in the final analysis of this season, will Liverpool have unwanted flashbacks of their team-sheet on a sunny September afternoon at Fratton Park?

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