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Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Theories vary on why Liverpool is so inconsistent


LONDON — The question has been asked countless times yet no one can come up with a satisfactory answer.

Christopher Davies

Why is Liverpool so dominant in the Champions League and yet so disappointing in domestic football?

How can a side be embarrassed by Barnsley at Anfield in the F.A. Cup and then, four days later, beat Inter Milan, which leads Serie A by a distance, 2-0?

"It was a different competition and we had different players," was manager's Rafa Benitez's reply, which was more a statement of the blindingly obvious than any insight into his team's inconsistency.

With respect to Barnsley, even a rotated Liverpool side should be able to beat the Championship team at home.

The most popular answer to the Liverpool dilemma is Benitez's rotation system. However, the weakness in this theory is that just about every top club maximizes its squad, but Liverpool has somehow become the fall-guys for excessive tinkering.

In fact, Liverpool has used 26 different players this season which is fewer than Arsenal (32), Manchester United (28) and Chelsea (28).

It is not so much changing the team that has been the problem but the players who come in.

Andriy Voronin, Lucas, Ryan Babel, Martin Skrtel, Mark Gonzales, Gabriel Paletta and Jan Kromkamp have not proved to be of the standard required at the highest level.

"We played three times a week, too," said Bruce Grobbelaar, a Liverpool goalkeeper in the 1980s. "But Kenny Dalglish never changed five players without reason. Rotation should be natural and changes should be made only when there are injuries and suspensions."

There is also the suspicion that Benitez understands the complexities and tactical demands of the Champions League better than the hurly-burly of domestic football, and two finals in three years is strong evidence in favor of that argument.

Jimmy Case, a dominant force in Liverpool's midfield as it ruled Europe in the 1980s, thinks Benitez concentrates on Europe to boost his image.

Case said: "You have to wonder why after winning the European Cup in 2005 they have yet to win the league. Benitez still puts that trophy [Champions League] top of his list. I think it is partly for his own reputation. Doing well in the F.A. Cup and winning the title doesn't really get you noticed abroad, but if you win the Champions League then you're a big name on the European circuit.

"I'm not saying Benitez does not care about winning the F.A Cup or Premier League, but they are not his priorities and the rotation has gone too far in my opinion."

Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea tend to keep the backbone of their first choice XI together and rotate other players.

Most Liverpool fans believe Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres should start every game when fit. None played against Barnsley and only Agger was injured.

Ex-Liverpool defender Alan Hansen believes Liverpool is too cautious under Benitez and are overreliant on Gerrard and Torres.

"People come to Anfield and expect to see Liverpool attack; they do not come to see Liverpool field a lone striker against Wigan and Sunderland," Hansen said.

"Everything at a football club is about the players and they have not been good enough. Liverpool under Benitez have improved, but only in as much as that it used to be that if Steven Gerrard did not bail them out they could forget about winning. Now it's Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

"If you are completely reliant on two players to win games, that might be enough to win the Champions League. But you cannot possibly hope to compete for the Premier League title with such a narrow attacking base."

After a summer when Benitez spent £46 million on new players, the American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett and the supporters had every right to expect Liverpool to be doing better than trailing Premier League leaders Arsenal by 19 points after 26 games.

The victory over Inter rescued Liverpool's season and it is favored to survive the second leg at San Siro.

Only once under Benitez has Liverpool conceded three goals in the Champions League — when it beat AC Milan on penalties after the 3-3 draw in the final three years ago.

The last time Liverpool conceded three goals and lost was the 4-2 defeat by Bayer Leverkusen in 2002.

San Siro will be the setting for two tumultuous nights of Champions League showdowns as AC Milan, which drew 0-0 with Arsenal in the first leg on Wednesday, and Inter battle for Anglo-Italian supremacy.

Manchester United and Chelsea are favored to progress after away draws against Lyon and Olympiakos, respectively.

However, even Celtic manager Gordon Strachan is not overly optimistic of overturning a 3-2 deficit against Barcelona at Nou Camp.

"I wouldn't bet my house on it," said Strachan, a manager who puts realism above blind faith.

Christopher Davies writes about the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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