3790: Rafa Benitez Liverpool Startin
by : Kieran McHugh
So three games into the Rafa Benitez selection bingo experiment and we come to arguably Liverpool’s most important game of the season. Any season. Everton fans might well have a different opinion, but ask the Reds which game they regard as the most important to win and the chances are they’d say Manchester United. If you could guarantee victory on Sunday for Liverpool at Old Trafford your average Kopite would happily walk alone the length of the M62 in a dress to witness it.
After their fine 1-0 win away in the Champions League in Bordeaux, Benitez claimed it would be a boost going into Sunday’s encounter with the early league leaders. United also won in midweek albeit against weaker opposition in FC Copenhagen. United also played a day earlier than Liverpool and were at home. Ferguson will be looking to recall Ferdinand, Giggs and Gary Neville after missing out against the Danes. Gabriel Heinze could also return after his hamstring problems. United, it seems, will be firing on all cylinders.
For Liverpool, quite apart from being keen to claim the upper hand against their East Lancashire rivals, need the points to regain ground in the Premiership. Taking points off Manchester United would also do wonders for the belief around Anfield with two winnable home games coming up before the next big test against Arsenal. I think that Benitez is getting closer to doing the unthinkable. Naming an unchanged side. Injuries, the ridiculous turnover of games and the international breaks have meant an increased requirement for rotation. For Sunday’s game I can see Benitez playing his best team from the off.
That means Reina in goal. The clean sheet against Bordeaux will have done him no harm at all. Last season’s run of matches without conceding may be a distant memory for the Spaniard, but he remains number one for Liverpool.
The back four is starting to take shape now. I can see this being, with the odd tweak here and there, Benitez starting defensive line for the foreseeable future. Finnan will play at right back, looking to curb Giggs’ forward runs, Riise will have the job of curtailing Cristiano Ronaldo and Hyypia and Carragher will look to keep out Saha and Rooney. Hyypia may well go up against Saha in a physical battle leaving Rooney to be picked up by Carragher when he’s alongside the the former Fulham frontman who will lead the line.
This leaves the vexed question of midfield. Vexed because this is the area that Benitez likes most to change. Gerrard will return for his 350th game for the club and for my money may be asked to go out left again to attempt to keep Ronaldo in check. Gerrard’s dynamism may well be required to force Neville back thus keeping him from offering too much support to the Portugese winger. Not that he needs it on current form.
On the right I can see Benitez going for Pennant. If Heinze does come back in for United, Liverpool will be keen to play on his flank as often as possible to try to expose any potential rustiness. Pennant’s pace and trickery could be the key to unlocking the United defence, especially if he’s able to knock in some decent crosses for the front men.
In the centre of midfield I think Benitez sees Xabi Alonso and Mo Sissoko as his best two for this type of game. In other games, particularly at Anfield, I could see Gerrard being given the berth in the middle of the park, but up against this opposition Rafa may play safe by having his favoured three midfielders all in. Which means Gerrard squeezed out to the flank.
Sissoko for me will pick up Rooney if he drops deep to pick up the ball and otherwise both will be concerned about the runs of Scholes. One of the key battles may be which of the two midfield generals, Alonso and Carrick, is able to get enough time on the ball to dictate the match. As well as his duty to break up play, Sissoko’s role will be to allow Alonso some freedom to make full use of his range of passing.
Up front although I predicted his return last week, and there has been talk of him playing this weekend, Fowler will not figure at Old Trafford in my opinion. Instead I see Rafa rotating again. Dirk Kuyt only coming on after 64 minutes of the game against Bordeaux indicates a keenness from Benitez to have him play on Sunday. For me that will be as the link player between midfield and attack. I expect Kuyt and Bellamy to form the attacking partnership with the Welsh captain starting to hit some kind of form after a sticky patch.
This is being hailed as a “must win” game for Benitez. It’s not quite reached that yet. If it had been at Anfield not only would the Liverpool fans have been expecting to win, they might well have found it difficult to reconcile defeat, even after the Champions League win. I feel it will be tight on Sunday, as it usually is. After first picking seven of the eleven, then nine last week I feel Rafa’s team might be a little easier to predict this week than some others. I’ve gone for little tinkering and a solid unit. Some pace and some power with not many surprises.
Reina, Finnan, Riise, Hyypia, Carragher, Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko, Kuyt, Bellamy.
Prediction – Manchester United 2 – 0 Liverpool