Liverpool Comment: Forgotten Men Come Good For Rafa Benitez

Some of the Spaniard's most castigated signings are proving their worth.
It has been an unfamiliar feeling for Liverpool fans to wake up this winter with optimism coarsing through their veins. The Reds' Christmas was pretty much cancelled by their travails at home and in Europe, with their early exit from the Champions League and FA Cup supplemented by a miserable start to the Premier League campaign.

But now, three weeks into the year that was supposed to be Liverpool's, the promise has returned. Amazing what a difference 90 minutes can make.

Wednesday night's 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield hasn't fixed all the problems at Liverpool - the club's debt issue still refuses to go away, as does speculation over the future of manager Rafa Benitez, with Guus Hiddink the latest name to be thrown into the ring as a potential replacement.

But it certainly went a long way to mending the confidence shredded by last week's cup humiliation at the hands of Championship strugglers Reading.

The jokes had been doing the rounds on Merseyside all week - Rafa had admitted his grasp of English was poor: he was fine with speaking and listening, it was just Reading he was having trouble with, and so on - but Saturday's draw at Stoke, ugly and disappointing though it may have been, was a big moment for the Spaniard and his troops, and against Spurs they banished plenty, if not all, of their demons.

For Benitez, the victory was also a personal triumph. Surely no manager has had his transfer record examined with such ferocity as he has. Every disappointing result, or substandard performance, drew further rays of criticism from all quarters. His persona and his tactical acumen are often questioned, but his transfer-market prowess is the favoured stick with which to beat him.

How refreshing then to see some of the players who were supposed to ensure his departure from Anfield doing their utmost to guarantee his stay. The likes of Philipp Degen, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, David Ngog and even last-night's match-winner Dirk Kuyt have been held up as beacons of mediocrity, sub-par purchases in an era which demands instant perfection.

Even Alberto Aquilani, ten games into his Anfield career, was being written off. Some reports even suggested the Italian may be set for a return to Serie A in the form of Juventus, with Liverpool prepared to write off a sizeable portion of the £17 million they paid to Roma in June for the 25-year-old.

Benitez has long defended the capture of Aquilani. When Liverpool started sluggishly without the Italian, he said "we have signed the player for five years, not for five months".  When fans grew frustrated at his lack of game-time during the Reds' torrid December run, Benitez urged patience. He was getting fitter and fitter, said the Spaniard, and then Liverpool would see the best of him. And on last night's showing, he was right.

Aquilani started the match as a traditional trequartista, playing in behind the lone striker, Kuyt. With both Mascherano and Lucas prividing the insurance behind him, here was the Italian's chance to shine in the role he has always said is his favourite.

Six minutes in, he did just that. Collecting an astute chest pass from Kuyt, the Italian took a sublime first touch to evade Jermaine Jenas, before slipping the ball smartly back to Kuyt to steer the Reds in front. It was his first noticeable contribution to his new club, the first instalment in paying back that £17 million fee.

His partner-in-crime Kuyt is another whose presence has been questioned this season. The forward is very much a mainstay of Benitez's team, but a string of haphazard performances have provoked serious debate on whether the £10m Dutchman merits his place amongst Liverpool's prized assets.

It is true that Kuyt, perhaps more than any other player, embodies the 'typical' Benitez style. Versatile, conscientious, yet largely unspectacular, the Dutchman is Benitez's unassuming lapdog on the pitch. Yet such a description overlooks the immense contribution Kuyt can make to the team.

Last season's tally of 15 goals was remarkable for what was essentially a right-sided midfield player, and the former Feyenoord man has now struck 8 times in this campaign, and often at the most important of times. His last minute, twice-taken spot-kick last night was as much a test of his character as it was his technique. He passed it.

And he wasn't alone. Degen's inclusion on team-sheets has, until this point, been met by gasps of shock and disappointment by Reds supporters. The 27-year-old has been plagued by injuries since his free transfer arrival from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2008, and has hardly looked the part in his brief appearances in the red shirt.

Yet those who have written off the Swiss, who has 29 caps for his country, may now be forced to adjust their opinions a touch. Degen was the pick of an admittedly bad bunch in the defeat to Reading, and has impressed with his energy and incision as an auxiliary right winger in the past two fixtures. Had he put a finish to a sweeping second-half counter-attack last night, it would have been ample reward for his endeavour.

Dutch double | Kuyt scored twice against Spurs

Meanwhile Kyrgiakos, the towering Greek defender, has polarised opinion on Merseyside since his low-key £1.5m switch from AEK Athens in August. There are those who bemoan his agricultural style, and wonder how any ex-Rangers player can be considered good enough for Liverpool, whilst others simply use his transfer as an example of how Benitez has been denied funds with which to strengthen his squad sufficiently.

But in amongst that conjecture lies a footballer. Kyrgiakos may look ungainly, ragged even, but in the last two games he has been a rock at the back. He snuffed out Stoke's aerial threat at the weekend, and followed that up by sticking 6ft 7in Peter Crouch neatly in his back pocket last night.

His aerial presence even seemed to take the pressure off defensive partner Martin Skrtel, who had his best game for some time. Suddenly, the £1.5m fee looks a smart piece of business.

It was for the same fee that Benitez snared Ngog from Paris Saint-Germain eighteen months ago. But the waifish, flaky teenager who began his Anfield career is no more. The 20-year-old is developing fast. Indeed he has had little choice given the injuries to Fernando Torres and the ineptitude of Andriy Voronin and Ryan Babel. Last night's fifteen minute cameo proved his effectiveness as a substitute. In his short spell on the pitch he forced a fine save from Heruelho Gomes before winning the penalty from which Kuyt sealed the points.

Of course there are those who doubt the wiry Frenchman, many a complaint has centred around Benitez's refusal to consider a deal for Michael Owen last summer. The former Reds star joined Manchester United instead, and to Liverpool's detriment it was said. But Ngog's goals-per-minutes ratio (one goal every 125 minutes) far surpasses that of Owen's (one every 250 minutes), and in a struggling side too. Perhaps Benitez is entitled to a bit more credit where the Frenchman is concerned.

Yet one result and a battling draw does not change everything, and Liverpool were still at least two levels below their best even in victory last night. But with arguably their four most valuable players - Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Yossi Benayoun - all to return to action in the next month or so, and new-signing Maxi Rodriguez to be bedded into the side, who would bet against Benitez rediscovering the blend which made the Reds such a potent force at the back-end of last season?

And if the likes of Aquilani, Degen, Kyrgiakos and Ngog continue to confound the critics as they have been recently, maybe the Spaniard's transfer record will soon be a weapon in his armoury, rather than a signal of his incompetence.

Victory over Spurs, who failed to live up to their own expectations, leaves the Reds well-placed in the battle for fourth-place. They are now just a point behind Harry Redknapp's men, jammed between Manchester City and Aston Villa - who have a game in hand.

Indeed, the three points gathered last night means Benitez's men are just eleven points off the Premier League's summit, though it will take more than a couple of results to even begin setting any other target than fourth.

Neil Jones,

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