Rafa has to be ruthless

May 28, 2005
By John Brewin
(Archive)

Bank balances are groaning, livers are moaning and the litter is being cleared from the streets of Liverpool and, hopefully, Istanbul.

The satisfaction enjoyed by those associated with Liverpool FC is unlikely to abate for some time. These are a set of people only too happy to remind rivals of their history and achievements.

But for Rafael Benitez, the hard work really starts here. And few could doubt that he is equal to his next task - turning his European champions into Premiership contenders.

Benitez's achievement is made all the greater by the acknowledgement that many of the players whose mantlepieces are set for a new, very special, adornment are players that the Spaniard obviously doesn't fancy and was landed with in the cash-strapped summer months of 2004. And though sentiment is never short an emotion on Merseyside, a cull is likely. And highly necessary.

Jerzy Dudek will forever be the hero of Istanbul. That amazing double save from Andriy Shevchenko and his Grobbelaar-esque antics to win the penalty shoot-out bailed out a team whose energy had been expended in that wonderful six-minute comeback. But Benitez will note his fragility in the early part of the game and for much of the season. Already Villareal keeper Pepe Reina is talking up his move to Anfield.

Vladimir Smicer took six years to become an Anfield hero. A rank underachiever who arrived from France's Lens as the best player in the old Championnat, Smicer's goal was quite a swansong. But with his contract up and Benitez perhaps looking to his old club Valencia for the services of the fleet-footed Vicente, no amount of post-match badge-kissing can change the view of Vlad as anything but an ex-Liverpool player.

Milan Baros already seems seems set for the exit. Fernando Morientes is already at the club and Djibril Cisse's return, with his added capability in holding up the ball, will hasten the Czech's goodbyes. Benitez may again turn to Valencia with their striker Mista a favourite son. Baros' Euro 2004 performance continues to make him a saleable asset and a swap would seem prudent.

Full-back Steve Finnan spent most of the early season benched in favour of Josemi. He has been fortunate in that his rival's impetuosity won him a spot in the side. But Finnan was culpable for both Crespo goals and was subbed at half-time. With earnings from being European champions said to eventually total £50m, Benitez will surely look to reinforce here.

As for Harry Kewell, his time at Liverpool has to be over. Physical injury may well have been the end of his final but it is mental impairement that is his real problem. It is said Kewell took a groin knock. But then again so did the heroic Jamie Carragher late in normal time. Carragher, who this season has gone from willing foot-soldier to chest-thumping talisman, carried on as normal, playing through the pain barrier to force a penalty shoot-out.

Liverpool now have a reputation to protect. They're European champions but have not been a force in their own league for 15 years. Emotional fragility cannot be tolerated if they are to reclaim a place as a domestic power. Kewell can expect a move to a Premiership backwater or a hotter continental clime.

Empics / PhotographyBenitez: Eager for Gerrard deal

And what of Steven Gerrard? His goal was a captain's goal. His winning celebration was the most frenzied and his future is the most queried. He has spoken of imminent talks with club execs but is yet to fully say that he will definitely, no question, staying a Liverpool player.

It has been rumoured that his contract saga and high self-regard has annoyed some of his team-mates. A belief that he is bigger than the club may not be the attitude to take with an arch-pragmatist like Benitez. Add to this the fact that it was Gerrard and not Xabi Alonso who was moved from midfield alongside substitute Didi Hamann in Liverpool's hour of need in Istanbul. Gerrard got the ball rolling but it was the Spaniard who kept it pinging to Liverpool players as the sting was taken out of the rampant rossoneri.

Could a cashing-in of Gerrard to the continent further fund a revolution? A defensive midfield player to complement the one-paced Alonso would allow Benitez to play two strikers. Gerrard's instinct to charge around is not always conducive to tactical rigidity. Liverpool to part with their European Cup winning captain after a penalties win? It's happened before. Graeme Souness went to Sampdoria in 1984. The reasons may be different and Gerrard would be missed, especially by the fans, but he may not quite be an indespensible as he and they believe.

Hamann himself seems set to leave the club. Pivotal as the German was after replacing Finnan, Benitez is looking for younger legs in his midfield. Premiership suitors Bolton and Everton seem likely to be able to offer him similar wages and the chance for the 31-year-old to be in a starting XI.

And Sami Hyypia, the deposed captain, looked lost in that stunning first-half Milanese onslaught. Years have advanced and his pace has not. Nor has he ever looked as solid as he did alongside Stephane Henchoz. Mauricio Pellegrino has been a Premiership flop but his signing reveals that Benitez is not fully confident in the Finn. Hyypia's days are numbered. Expect to see him depart Anfield next summer at the latest.

Interest in Real Zaragoza's Argentine Gabriel Milito may hasten Hyypia's relegation to the bench and his Anfield goodbyes.

As for Djimi Traore; is it really true that he has a Champions League winner's medal? It is, proving football is a strange game. His first-half display revealed his shortcomings at the top level. Though Traore's late goal-line clearance made him as vital to eventual success as any of Liverpool's heroes, he seems destined to become a squad rather than first-team player, with perhaps only his versatility keeping him training at Melwood.

Jerzey Dudek, Andriy Shevchenko
GettyImages / CliveBrunskillJerzey Dudek won the trophy for Liverpool but that may not be enough to keep him there.

Liverpool's fans are in the pink. Their tales of a trip to the Bosphorus will be legend.

The half-finished stadium two hours from Istanbul was on a landscape more akin to the Steppes of Outer Mongolia than a European footballing capital. The journey back to Taksim Square was reminiscent of a refugee convoy's flight from a warzone, with stray fans wandering in amidst the stationary cars and on the mud-sodden roadside. All hope was lost at half-time, but a comeback as good as any in the 50-year history of the European Cup was made. Flying home, due to the lax attitude of Turkish airport staff, was made a standing room only experience for some fans. All memories for glasses to be clinked to, books to be written about, songs to be to sung to.

But time, as Liverpool, of all clubs, know, waits for no team. The current side still looks short of achieving Premiership success and seems unlikely to recreate the momentum of their run to Istanbul glory if they are readmitted to the competition they have just won.

Come August, Istanbul and the Liverpool line-up that won a 5th European Cup will be history.

Rafa will see to that.


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