For all intents and purposes, Ryan Babel was a striker before he came to Liverpool. He was certainly a raw talent, one that needed taming and provided with focus, but his pace, power and shooting ability were the talk of Holland before Rafa Benitez signed him up for £11.5million back in 2007. 3 years later and the Dutch forward was struggling to make an impact at Anfield. There were many reasons for this, Babel’s own attitude was certainly a problem, Rafa using him solely as an impact substitute definitely didn’t help, but the biggest question was over whether the 23 year old actually had the ability to play at the top level in the Premier League. A frustrating player who has pace to burn, can run at defenders and has a venomous shot, Babel also can lose the ball easily and fire off a loose pass or wayward shot.
After speculation that Babel would move on in the January transfer window, a clear the air meeting with Benitez has seen Babel play more regularly and steadily improving his form. One of the many reasons why it has taken so long to settle, according to the Dutchman, is his transition from being a striker to a winger. A player with a direct style, he has been found wanting on a number of occasions when up against good defences, but with Fernando Torres out for the season, and David Ngog and Dirk Kuyt unlikely to recover from injury, the most likely scenario against Atletico Madrid tonight is that Babel will revert to his favoured position, and play as a lone striker. A position that Babel is anticipating with relish:
‘If I have to fill in up front, I would welcome the chance because that is where I made my name at Ajax. I broke into the team as a 17-year old striker and although we struggled that season, I recall scoring several last-minute winning goals. They signed Klass-Jan Huntelaar and I had to move out to the left but, in my mind, I love being a striker.”
He was signed by Liverpool most likely because of his performances on the left wing at Ajax but Babel believes that during his time at Anfield, he could have been used more often in his favoured position:
‘The problem is, Liverpool haven’t used me there. It isn’t always easy to switch to a new position without any preparation but I am ready for the challenge. Maybe my versatility has counted against me a bit. But this is a semi-final and I will give it everything.”
If he does start up front on his own tonight, Babel will have a lot to prove. Consistency and discipline haven’t really been his forte since joining from Ajax but they are qualities he will need when he takes on Atletico tonight. As the lone front man, Babel will need to hold up the ball, both from long balls and when coming short to lay off passes. It requires a consistent first touch and the ability to head down balls to fellow team-mates. If he can’t do this job then the task ahead for Liverpool will be just that bit more difficult, for if the Reds can’t keep the ball, there is little chance of a 2-0 victory.
In regards to discipline, Liverpool will need to utilise Babel’s pace as much as possible and Gerrard will want to send him through on goal at every opportunity he gets. The Dutch forward must be in the right position, and time his runs to perfection so as not to be caught offside. If he gets that right he will cause havoc for the Atletico defence whose backline is dodgy at best. Confidence is key here and Babel’s goal against Burnley at the weekend hopefully has done him the world of good. Even one-on-one against Brian Jensen, his finish was not the most convincing and if he is in the same position tonight against David De Gea, it is vital he keeps his composure. If he scores two goals tonight in a 2-0 victory, tonight might very well be the making of Ryan Babel.
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