Did One Substitution Forever Curse Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool?
For a manager it must be the worst scenario to find yourself in. You’ve gone to all the effort of reaching a Champion’s League final only to not bother turning up on the night itself.
In your first season in charge of a new club as well. It could have been oh so perfect and yet a tactical blunder has turned things against you before you’ve even had a chance to get started.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with cartoons will have seen the scenario of the man talking to his good conscience on one shoulder and the devil equivalent on the other.
The latter can offer you a way out of this sorry predicament, seemingly at a price you can afford, but the haloed one is advising caution.
Desperate men do desperate things however and on that fateful night in Istanbul, I think Rafa Benitez relented and choose the dark side. Only now are we fully realising what he agreed to sacrifice in order to do so.
You see, he initially paid the price that night for being too attacking. Starting with a central midfield pairing of Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard is a bold move, and an admirable one in most cases, but on this occasion it was simply foolhardy. I mean, damn, he played Harry Kewell from the start. It was simply asking for trouble.
They were 1-0 down within a minute and it was three by half time. A couple of travelling Liverpool fans left the stadium in despair and the players surely wanted to. However then Lucifer appeared to Benitez and offered him a way out, and all he had to do was bring on Didi Hamann. It was an inspired substitution as they couldn’t win the ball at all and while it will be remembered at Gerrard’s final, who can forget his heroic, cramp-laden sprint at right back in extra time, it was the man from Germany who changed things around. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward nearly four years and it is clear the deal on the table at the time was “Win this game tonight but you’ll never win the Premiership in your time at the club…”. “Done,” said Rafa, and here we are now.
While past form shows Benitez as a conservative coach on the whole, that substitution warped his mind. It made him too defensive, too often and these instincts are robbing him off the most ‘on a plate’ title in years.
It may seem an odd time to say it, seeing as they are a point clear at the top of the league, but United have two games in hand and even four points from those would leave them in a comfortable position with just 13 games to play.
Every team will drop points but the manner in which Liverpool have done so this season in inexcusable. The recent three drawn matches in a row against Stoke, Everton and Wigan state the facts. Not to do those sides a dis-service, but three points from those ties does not a league winner make.
Looking back slightly further, taking three points from home games against West Ham, Fulham and Stoke will also be remembered as a turning point. Some Liverpool supporters were criticised for booing at the end of those games, but they could see as clearly as everyone else the writing was on the wall.
It all came to a point in last night’s win, ironically enough. Benitez was right to point out that his players are very tired, and they probably are. However tiredness didn’t force you to sell your second-most high profile striker in Robbie Keane.
Ok so he wasn’t playing that well all season, but tiredness didn’t cause you spend £20m on a striker you couldn’t fit into a system alongside your current star players either. Tiredness wasn’t the reason for him becoming so demoralised at your poor man-management skills that fleeting substitute appearances seemed to be a waste of time, such was the mental state of a man once epitomised by his strength of character and self-belief.
Tiredness, to be fair, did force you to play David N’Gog up front but it was not the reason that you have no other options to turn to. Even Ryan Babel, a man once labelled the next Thierry Henry, has had so many shackles placed upon him that he is half as effective as someone with his attributes should be.
If Torres hadn’t have bailed them out with a last-gasp winner, the Sunday papers would already been filled with headlines such as “Riff-Rafa” and slamming the decision to field a side with three central defenders, three full backs and a holding midfielder.
As it stands, we may have to wait until March 14 for the official death knell when they fail to earn three points at Old Trafford and Alex Ferguson adds another league title to his list.
When you don’t concede for ten games, it is hard to say you don’t deserve it, but looking back to the end of November, when they were five points clear, Kopites may look back and wonder how it all went wrong. Equally, when does it ever look like going right?