Wednesday, March 12, 2008

As the Wheel Turns

Rafa has done it again. He took the side to the San Siro, and broke Inter Milan down. The runaway Serie A leaders looked ordinary, despite starting brightly and winning a scrappy midfield battle for most of the first half, and then another sublime goal from Fernando Torres in the 2nd half killed off the tie.

Inter did have chances, but Ibrahimovic insisted on missing them all. The 2nd bookable offense for Burdisso might have been a little harsh, but the game was over by that point. His sending-off was more justified that Materazzi's in the leg at Anfield, but the Italians have little complaint. For once, they're the ones on the wrong end of refereeing decisions, but they could have had 13 men on the pitch last night and it wouldn't have made a difference.

The difference, as has so often been the case this season, was Rafa Benitez. Going through arguably his toughest season as a manager, catching criticism and flak from owners, players, fans and the media, Rafa's been juggling all the pressure much like he juggles his team sheets.

Recently, his rotation fetish has subsided considerably, and what a surprise: we've won every game since the Barnsley mess, including two games against Inter Milan.

The big question is: why couldn't he have done this sooner?

I've slagged Benitez off many times, on UF and in various pub conversations. I remain convinced that he's not the best manager for Liverpool going forward, and that we need a manager more suited to the mental punishment of a long domestic league season. While his tactics and organization in knockout European competitions cannot be faulted, that alone won't be enough to save his job.

When he looks back on this season, regardless of the final outcome, I wonder if he'll see that Barnsley game as the same turning-point many of us did. It was a shock result at home, but it snapped the club out of a four-month lethargy. Players and manager finally began to live up to all that potential we had stored in them at the beginning of the season.

Not only that, but the Barnsley game saw the rotation policy finally discarded, and is it any wonder that our fortunes have turned around?

4 straight wins in the league, scoring 13 goals, and two impressive wins against Inter Milan in the Champions League.

The core of the team is finally getting to play together with regularity, and they're building an understanding that I've been desperate to see since September. Torres and Gerrard work so well together, Mascherano has made the defensive midfielder spot his own, Babel's speed and pace are developing nicely [needs to work on his temper a bit though], and our defense is finally gelling now that we have someone younger to replace Hyppia until Agger is healthy again.

Confidence is high, and it needs to be considering the battle up ahead for 4th place. Everton are no slouches either, and there's a run of games against Man Utd, Everton and Arsenal at the end of the month that could settle matters once and for all.

Say what you want about Rafa [and I frequently have], but the nightmarish scenario of spinning the wheel of fortune might finally be a thing of the past.

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