24 December 2007

Javier Mascherano proves his value to Rafael Benitez

Oliver Kay at Anfield
The Times
December 24, 2007

They appear to have more pressing concerns at a time when their ownership of the club has already reached crisis point, but if Liverpool’s American owners were to cast an eye over the performance on Saturday, they might just start to understand why Rafael BenÍtez wants them to put their growing financial worries to the back of their minds and stump up £17 million to sign Javier Mascherano to a long-term contract.
Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr will not do so, of course – not yet and possibly not ever, given the uncertainty that has raised serious doubts about their troubled regime as the clock ticks down towards a February deadline to refinance the £220 million that they borrowed to fund their initial takeover. Transfer activity is no longer the top priority at Anfield – and nor, for this reason alone, is the future of a manager for whom the American tycoons have little or no time – but even as he struggles to come to terms with the instability of his own position, BenÍtez cannot tolerate the idea of allowing Mascherano to slip through the club’s hands.
Fernando Torres may have stolen the limelight with two late goals, his ninth and tenth in his first 11 appearances at Anfield, but not even he could quite eclipse Mascherano. With Steven Gerrard unusually subdued alongside him, the Argentina player was relentless, terrorising the Portsmouth midfield throughout and having a hand in each of Liverpool’s four goals. In a typically understated way, it was a masterclass from the man known in his homeland as Jefecito, or little chief.
The performance made a mockery of his inability to get a game for West Ham United a year ago, but who at Liverpool can say where he will be in another 12 months, with the club’s unusual lease arrangement with his “owners” due to expire in the summer? Barcelona are lurking with intent, hoping to exploit the continuing uncertainty at Anfield. BenÍtez said on Saturday evening: “It’s always better to get it done as soon as possible, but we just have to wait.” And wait and wait, it seems, while the owners try to get their finances in order.
For Liverpool’s two opening goals, a volley from Yossi Benayoun and a comical own goal from Sylvain Distin, Torres played an important part, but on both occasions it was Mascherano who won possession from Sulley Muntari. Thereafter, with his team 2-0 up in 15 minutes, others simply went through the motions, but from Mascherano there was no let-up.
It was a strange game, although Harry Redknapp, the Portsmouth manager, found other words for it. “Bad defending”, he said in his postmatch press conference, suggesting that a frozen training pitch in the two days before the game had done his players no good but unwilling to allow them to hide behind such an excuse.
Briefly, early in the second half, Portsmouth threatened to make a game of it, Benjani Mwaruwari scoring from Kanu’s cross, but Liverpool were soon two goals clear again, another pass by Mascherano forcing Hermann Hreidarsson into a mistake that Torres punished. Then, with five minutes remaining, Torres scored with a volley after Gerrard headed down Jamie Carragher’s floated pass. No prizes for guessing who won the ball in the first place.
Torres left the field to a standing ovation moments later, but even he, as he returned to the pitch at the final whistle, made a beeline for Mascherano. “He is a player who allows other players to play,” Benitez said. But on the odd occasion when Gerrard and others are off colour, Mascherano can play a bit himself as well.

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