Well an all-time XI is a hard one to think of, so before I post that I’ll give it a bit more thought. But since we have entered the new era of Standard Chartered, Roy Hodgson, Joe Cole and all that, I thought I’d take a fond last look at what was a sometimes stop-breathing-’cos-it’s-so-darn-exciting reign under Rafael Benitez, to pick my all time Rafa Signings XI.
In all fairness, the goalkeeper spot is a pretty straightforward one, given that for me Reina is the best ‘keeper to ever grace the Anfield turf. Sorry all you Clem and Brucie lovers, for me Pepe is the best. So lets move swiftly on to more debatable positions.
In defence, Rafa signed a veritable smorgasbord of players, from the tough tackling but awful positionally Gabriel Paletta, to the hugely expensive and magnificently gifted Glen Johnson. Current centre backs Daniel Agger, Soto Kyrgiakos and Martin Skrtel all joined the club during the Rafa regime, as did a variety of full backs such as the very early signing of Josemi, the debatable swap deal of Jan Kromkamp, the Bosman signing of Fabio Aurelio and the loan-made-permanent deal for Emiliano Insua. Alvaro Arbeloa, Antonio Barragan and Miki Roque swelled the numbers of Spaniards who made appearances for the club under Rafa. Andrea Dossena was bought for big money but never settled to Premiership life.
For me the obvious stand-out candidate is Daniel Agger. For me he is the almost perfect centre back; calm, composed, comfortable on the ball, a ferocious tackler and excellent anticipation. Good without being outstanding in the air, good pace and a killer shot off his left foot make him a valuable commodity in both penalty boxes. If he improves on his concentration levels for the full 90 minutes and grows into a more vocal player to become better at organising the defence, I would have him as a serious candidate (along with Pepe Reina) to take over the captaincy once Gerrard passes it along.
In midfield, the early signing of Xabi Alonso marked the beginning of the “Rafalution” and the influx of Spanish-based players to the club, and was one of our stand-out performers during our Champions League and FA Cup wins of 2005 and 2006. Momo Sissoko enjoyed a terrific season or two before succumbing to loss of form and two very bad injuries, while wide players brought to the club ranged from the at-times-sublime (Luis Garcia) to the at-times-I-can’t-believe-he’s-a-professional-footballer (Antonio Nunez). Lesser-known youngsters such as Sebastian Leto, Paul Anderson, Bez Idrizaj (R.I.P.) and Francis Duran came and went over the years, while the likes of Albert Riera, Nabil El Zhar and Lucas Leiva have had varying amounts of success.
Whilst the search for the wingers we needed went on with the likes of Pennant, Benayoun and Gonzalez, it turned out that a player originally signed as a striker turned out to be arguably Rafa’s best midfield signing overall: Dirk Kuyt. There are those, as with so many other players, who will take or leave Dirk Kuyt, criticising (or mistaking perhaps?) his attributes of high work rate, emphasis on team tactical performances and scoring “only the occasional important goal” as not desirable in a modern day attacking player. Say what you will about Dirk, but he’s just played in a World Cup Final after all.
And so to the forwards. The above-mentioned Kuyt is an obvious choice, as is current Kop favourite Fernando Torres. But competition is fierce: Bellamy, Crouch, Babel, Robbie Keane and current LFC top scorer David Ngog were all signed by Rafa – as was God himself, Robbie Fowler brought back for a second stint at his home club in 2007. Not forgetting Andrei Voronin of course. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
Looking back on all Rafa’s signings, there were an awful lot of top drawer players in there – some who, for whatever reason, just didn’t work out (Morientes anyone?) and some who performed exactly as we expected them to.
Undoubtedly there were some bemusing buys and speculative signings, but no manager can get it 100% right in the transfer market and anyone who thinks the likes of Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal or Man United do any better than us need only remember – or Google in some cases perhaps – the likes of Glenn Helder, Massimo Taibi or Glauber. Who? Exactly.
So the final results – some positions were decidedly easy to fill, none more so than those occupied by Torres and Reina, but there were some tricky decisions to be make. Below is my final XI, plus some subs for honourable mentions.
GK: Pepe Reina. Complete class act. Assured, great at organising the defence, top shot stopper and magnificent distribution.
RB: Glen Johnson. Criticised for being poor defensively but for my money he is as good or better as most other right backs in the league and I’m more concerned with him assisting an attack, which he does to an exceptionally high level – if we wanted a plain solid back four then Carragher would still have been playing there since 2004.
LB: Alvaro Arbeloa. Reliable and consistent, a great crosser of the ball. Always looked a real team player and filled in across the entire defence during his stay at Anfield. Made his debut at left back vs Lionel Messi and kept him a spectator – can’t ask for more than that.
CB: Daniel Agger. Great signing from Rafa. Should remain at L4 for years to come.
CB: Martin Skrtel. To be fair he didn’t have a lot of competition for this second slot, but strong as an ox and a never gives up, Skrtel is a tough defender to beat.
RM: Dirk Kuyt. Marvelous servant to the club, no doubt will score another 10-15 goals this season for us and in all honesty is a lot better at beating defenders than people give him credit for!
LM: Luis Garcia. My third favourite Rafa signing after Reina and Torres. Those goals against Juve, Norwich, Arsenal and particularly Chelsea will live long in my memory!
CM: Xabi Alonso. Best two seasons were his first and last at the club, but even in between he was a very good player. One of the best passers of the ball we have had the privilege of watching at Anfield in a long time.
CM: Javier Mascherano. Tenacious and fiery, this looks set to be his last season at Anfield, if indeed he even stays past the current transfer window. But his role in the journey to Athens in 2007 won’t quickly be forgotten. One of the world’s finest defensive midfielders.
ST: Fernando Torres. Who else? Our number 9 has 72 goals in 118 appearances to date and, with a bit of luck, will add to that tonight against Man City! If he stays fit he is the best forward in the world.
ST: Robbie Fowler. Rose tinted glasses? If you want. But my god did I have a big smile on my face the day Robbie re-signed. Was pretty valuable the end of the 2007 season, scored a few good goals. Less games the next season but Fowler is a true legend and I’m delighted to have been able to be there for his last game in a Reds shirt.
Scott Carson – best of an average to bad bunch.
Fabio Aurelio - injuries have cost him the best of his career, but a solid player nonetheless.
Peter Crouch - torrid start but grew into a key player for the Reds during his time.
Soto Kyrgiakos - not exactly mobile but robust and dominant in the air. Did the job he’s here to do, be a good backup.
Momo Sissoko – until his eye injury and then the dislocated shoulder he was the reason we could let Gerrard be more attacking. Won back every ball and covered every blade of grass.
Yossi Benayoun - another player who was in and out at times but scored some big goals such as vs Real Madrid and Fulham. Tricky and classy, was a good servant for Liverpool.
Dani Pacheco – way too early probably to put this lad in, but I’ve been waiting for a year to see him get regular game time for the first team and this season might be the one. New squad number, new manager, great chance for him to shine. And I like him more than Bellamy or Morientes!
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