- Rafa went into the Birmingham match with more attacking intent than he has done in some away matches this season, playing Maxi Rodriguez and Yossi Benayoun on the wings with Dirk Kuyt alongside Fernando Torres up front. Certainly he had no real choice in the matter, to throw caution to the wind for the match, as six wins from the last six matches was really a necessity. He set his stall out to attack and although he didn’t quite get the performance he expected from his players, the Reds certainly had more than enough chances to put the game beyond Birmingham City. Maxi hit the bar, and then blasted wide in the second half, while David Ngog had three good chances to put Liverpool back into the lead after coming on as a substitute. In most other circumstances, a draw at St Andrews would be seen as a good result, considering Birmingham’s record there this season. They have taken points off every team in the top four at home this season and have not lost in the league there since September. However, in the context of Liverpool’s poor season and the need for some quick victories, a draw puts us in an ever less likely position to get fourth spot. Considering Tottenham lost to Sunderland at the weekend, it was the ideal chance to catch up with the main contenders for fourth but the draw sets those ambitions back. Rafa said after the match that the Reds could afford one draw in the last six matches, and that the match on Sunday will have to be it, but it now means any more slip ups will end our hopes of Champions League football next season.
- A bit of tough love was needed with Alberto Aquilani over his injury problems and Rafa duly delivered it by naming Aqua on the bench and sending him on in the second half against Birmingham yesterday. The Italian midfielder was expected to sit out the match after feeling pain in the ankle which had kept him out for six months but Rafa believed the pain could be more psychological than anything:
“He was complaining of pain in his ankle and said he couldn’t train. It’s the same ankle he did before. Some players maybe can manage with the pain, some players when they have pain cannot. When you talk of pain you never know, it depends on each individual and that makes it really difficult.”
Considering Aqua was out with a virus for the Benfica match last Thursday, there was certainly some irritation from Rafa that there was yet another problem with his fitness. Certainly players do have different pain thresholds but the best thing for Aquilani at the moment, after such a long road back to full fitness, is to get him playing and get him used to playing 2 or 3 full matches in a row. Get him on the pitch and those psychological fears should go away, that is Rafa’s thinking.
- Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard were not the only people perplexed by Rafa’s decision to bring the Spanish striker off after 65 minutes against Birmingham yesterday. Liverpool fans at the match also booed the decision as the team’s best player was taken off the pitch with the scores still level at St Andrews. Although, I can understand Rafa taking off Torres with 10 minutes to go if things are not going well and he looks dead on his feet, neither were the case yesterday. Here’s Rafa’s explanation of why he was taken off:
“He was exhausted. He had some ice to protect his knee but he was tired, like some of the other players who played on Thursday. Fernando knew we needed to win and he knew he was tired. All the players want to be on the pitch and make a difference but you could see Ngog with fresh legs, and also Babel, making a big difference in the last few minutes. You have to manage and I think Ngog did a very good job. We needed fresh legs, that was very clear.”
Perhaps Torres’s knee was troubling him but you could see when he came off that he was bemused by the decision and when asked by Steven Gerrard why he was going off, he clearly didn’t know why. For me, even if he is really struggling for fitness, a half fit Torres is more of a threat than most strikers in the Premier League. The three missed chances by Torres’s sub David Ngog highlighted the manager’s controversial decision. It was however, kind of a catch 22 situation in the sense that if he wasn’t fit enough to start against Benfica on Thursday and was named on the bench for the match, Rafa would be slaughtered in the press. The Liverpool manager would have been accused of jeopardising Liverpool’s only chance of salvaging the season by winning the Europa League. The question remains though whether Torres was as tired as Rafa says. Torres certainly didn’t want to go off, and the question remains how much that decision will cost Rafa and Liverpool at the end of the season. If we miss out on fourth by one point, many will be pointing to this decision as the critical reason for the failure.
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