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Saturday, Jan. 31, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Figuring out what Benitez means is no easy task


LONDON — As Liverpool has lost only one Premier League game this season and trails leader Manchester United by two points, you would think everything is rosy in the Anfield garden.

Christopher Davies

Wrong.

Liverpool may have mounted its most realistic title bid in two decades but there are more questions than answers about the Reds, with manager Rafa Benitez at the center of the mystery.

Benitez replaced Steven Gerrard seven minutes from the end of Wednesday's 1-1 draw at Wigan, claiming the team's captain and inspiration was injured. This was news to Gerrard who told friends after the game the substitution was for tactical reasons.

The Spaniard is undoubtedly an outstanding manager yet too often he leaves everyone scratching their collective heads with his team selections, tactics and substitutions.

Benitez also has a politician's knack of evasive answers to so-called controversial questions. He said the second half against Wigan was crazy.

When asked why, Benitez replied: "Why was it crazy? Because it was crazy. In the last three games there has been something in common that I don't like. I know what it is but I can't say anything. It is just crazy."

"You can't control what you can't change. It could be like this for years. Alex Ferguson has been here for 22 years and you can see what it means when you have been here for so long."

That clears that up then.

Benitez is almost obsessive in changing his lineup for every game. It might sound like an obvious question but why not play your strongest XI and trust the players?

Liverpool has drawn nine league games this season, more than any other club, underlining his reputation as a cautious coach who puts not losing above winning.

The £20 million of Robbie Keane from Tottenham last summer is puzzling. Benitez prefers to play with one striker — usually Fernando Torres — and a five-man midfield with Gerrard operating in an advanced role.

In this formation there is no room for Keane, who is becoming more and more marginalized at Anfield.

"You can't second guess this fellow," said former Liverpool midfielder Ray Houghton. "He makes the weirdest tactical decisions. He's a defensive coach, no doubt about that."

On Sunday, Liverpool plays Chelsea in a third vs. second showdown with a midweek F.A. Cup replay against Everton to follow. Benitez's lineups and tactics are so impossible to predict many people have given up trying.

* * * * *

CHELSEA'S Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba put themselves at risk of a Football Association charge after a crossed-wrist goal celebration during the 2-0 win over Middlesbrough.

The club was quick to deny there was any political motivation behind the apparent handcuffs-celebration actions and insisted the players were not showing support for the recently freed Cote d'Ivoire activist Antoine Assale Tiemoko.

A Chelsea spokesperson said: "Salomon says there was nothing in it. He was just trying out a new celebration and it was a crossing of the arms. He also sometimes puts his hand over his face like a mask."

It begs the question: Why?

* * * * *

AT THIS time of the season members of the Football Writers' Association start thinking about whom they will vote for as the Footballer of the Year.

The player at the top of this correspondent's list is Nemanja Vidic, the heart of the Manchester United defense that has just set a new Premier League record of 1,032 minutes without conceding a goal.

The Serbia international has been a colossus at the back, finding time to score five goals.

Defenders tend not to win individual awards for obvious reasons but Vidic's contribution to United's success so far this season makes him the outstanding player on the best team in the country.

He cost United what is proving to be a bargain £7 million from Spartak Moscow three years ago and has become arguably the best defender in the world.

Last year Cristiano Ronaldo was elected the Footballer of the Year and Vidic, the master of keeping forwards quiet, would be a worthy successor to the Portuguese who last year completed a clean sweep of domestic, European and World player awards.

* * * * *

JULY 2007: David Beckham signs with the Los Angeles Galaxy on a $180 million five-year contract.

January 2009: David Beckham on Kaka's proposed move to Manchester City that would have been worth $26 million a year: "I don't think anybody in the dressing room is thinking about how much money they can earn. It's about playing with the best team with the best players in the world and winning trophies and it's not always about money."

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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