In Rafa We Trust...

... to deliver us number 19!

By Richard Jolly

Now, once again, Anfield expects. Liverpool's previous Premier League home game, against Sunderland, was notable for the air of resignation. The title, once again, was bound for Old Trafford and if Rafa Benitez did not actually acknowledge it, it was only due to the Spaniard's stubbornness.

Yet Benitez has only won trophies at Anfield in utterly improbable fashion and Liverpool's renewed assault on the top of the table has come with a sizeable surprise factor. Theirs is the most emphatic of comebacks, capped by a five-goal demolition of a side who recently recorded seven successive away wins.

Hope can be the cruellest emotion, but now their supporters can hope again. Their optimism can be allied with the belief, confidence and momentum the players possess. Manchester United have the one-point advantage and the game in hand but, perhaps, the more frayed nerves. ''We need to do our job and wait for United to make mistakes,'' said Benitez. ''Now we are closer, but still they are in a much better position.''

But there is an element of role reversal. Now the streets surrounding Anfield are patrolled by traders selling T-shirts mocking Sir Alex Ferguson. Now the chants of ''Rafa's cracking up'' are the ironic songs of the Liverpool supporters. They have a tendency to deify managers and, after beating Real Madrid 4-0, Manchester United 4-1 and Aston Villa 5-0, there is a religious fervour to the more traditional choruses of Benitez's name.

If Istanbul was the most remarkable 120 minutes (plus penalties) of his five-year tenure, this represents the greatest fortnight.

Liverpool have tended to be a side capable of great displays rather than a great team, but they have mustered three in succession. The predictable part of their unforeseen excellence has been the brilliance of Steven Gerrard. The captain's latest tour de force incorporated a hat-trick that took him past the 20-goal barrier for the third time in four seasons.

For the third time in three games, however, Gerrard's brilliance was complemented by his team's. Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso were dominant in midfield, a resurgent Albert Riera exerted a major influence on the left flank and in attack Fernando Torres' lithe and graceful running troubled Villa. In many respects, it ranks as another bewildering development that Liverpool struck five times without a Torres goal.

The perfectionist at the helm was certainly hoping for more. Benitez's initial reaction to the rout was a lament that Liverpool's victory was not larger, even though their goal difference is now greater than United's. He said: ''I wanted more goals. We had some chances to do better on counter-attack. It was really important to take your chances and you never know what can happen with the goal difference. It's something we could improve.''

Others detected less room for improvement, especially as Liverpool have rectified their habit of starting slowly. At Anfield, tempo, rather than tactics, can be the key. Liverpool's was high, and so was their level of performance. They won a corner in the first minute, forced Brad Friedel to make a save in the second, were ahead by the eighth and had a three-goal lead at half-time.

The breakthrough came with an emphatic finish from Dirk Kuyt after Alonso met Gerrard's free kick with a glancing header that rebounded back off the bar to the Dutchman.

Villa had their direct moments, but Liverpool managed to take route one for their second goal. It was, nonetheless, one to remember and it was made in Spain, though the creative talents of Alonso and Torres weren't required. Instead, Jose Reina should be credited with a rare assist. His punt forward travelled some 80 yards and was allowed to bounce - something that should prompt an inquest in the Villa defence - for Riera to strike a glorious half-volley that crashed in off the underside of the bar.

The left winger, enjoying a renaissance after a midwinter slump in form, played his part in the third goal. He was fouled by Nigel Reo-Coker, whose comparative unfamiliarity with the right-back role was exposed, and Gerrard converted the resulting penalty.

He was as accurate from 20 yards as from 12. After Alonso touched a free kick to him, Gerrard's precise sidefoot defeated Friedel. Then, when the goalkeeper, albeit inadvertently, halted Torres in full flight, he was dismissed. Gerrard beat another Brad - substitute goalkeeper Guzan - with a very similar spot kick.

It means the longest unbroken appearance record in the Premier League will end when Friedel is suspended for the trip to Old Trafford in a fortnight. Martin O'Neill said: ''I don't think Brad's gone out and made a deliberate attempt to upend him; quite the opposite, he makes himself smaller. The fact is that the referee has interpreted it as a penalty and a sending-off on top of it.''

The result brooked no complaints: ''We have played poorly today. There's no getting away from it. We have given some really lousy goals away and we have contributed to our own downfall.'' His analysis of the title race was succinct: ''After today, it won't concern me.'' Interest in Liverpool, however, is growing.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to rain on yer parade but me still thinks the fooking scum gonna do a clean sweep . . . sickening me knows but what to do . . .

    Their draw in both Cup competitions also paves the way somewhat with them getting the easiest possible opponents in everton & porto.

    Best not to talk too much or too loudly coz come end of season them fookers will be out in full force looking to rub salt into the wound, matey.