Rafa denies he is out of touch with Liverpool squad
As he faces the week that will define Liverpool's season, Rafael Benitez denied that he was a cold manager who is out of touch with his squad.
Three of his leading players —Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and most recently Fernando Torres — have painted a picture in their autobiographies of a man, who while tactically brilliant, lacks the human touch.
Gerrard, who will return for tonight's critical Champions League encounter with Lyon, has complained that his manager rarely “puts an arm around a player's shoulder”.
Torres, whose support for Benitez is beyond question but who will be absent through injury at Anfield tonight, recounted a story that after announcing that his wife was pregnant, Benitez congratulated his striker — but only for the near-post run that earned him a goal against Chelsea.
“I had forgotten that the man standing next to me was a coach who talks and thinks about football 24 hours a day,” Torres wrote.
It is a description Benitez himself doesn’t recognise.
“If you repeat a lie a lot of times, it becomes the truth,” he said yesterday.
“I have a lot of conversations with my players, both as individuals and in a group.
“I have conversations with them about the positives and negatives of football and we analyse all of it. Each of them has a DVD (on their performances). Gerrard wanted to talk about the negatives of his play but I said no: ‘Let's concentrate on the positives'.
“If they do well, I say well done. I say this 100 times, especially if we win. I was surprised with Fernando — it's true what I said about the goal against Chelsea, but in the dressing room it is a different situation.
“I did offer congratulations about the baby, but you have to sell books. But also you cannot be close friends with them because you have to make big decisions about their future.”
Nevertheless, Liverpool, who have lost four Premier League games already and face Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday, badly need to rediscover some togetherness. This is a side that this season has yet to recover from going a goal behind.
Benitez said that injuries, particularly to his centre-halves, have unsettled Liverpool at the start of a season that many expected to see them mount their most effective challenge for a first championship since 1990, against an ageing Chelsea and a Manchester United shorn of the genius of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Under the circumstances, signing an injured midfielder, Alberto Aquilani, to replace Xabi Alonso might not have been an inspired piece of business, although Benitez pointed out that his medical staff expected the Italian to be out of action for one month rather than three when he arrived from Roma and that he should be judged over the length of a full five-year contract. Aquilani may make his Liverpool debut at Arsenal in the Carling Cup at the end of the month.
However, a man who has steered Liverpool out of tighter corners than this preferred to take an optimistic view of the next six critical days. References to the rogue beach ball that unhinged his side at Sunderland left him philosophical rather than furious.
“We can do nothing about it now; which is why will not be appealing,” he said. “We have lost games but last season we were talking about the draws (against the likes of Stoke, Fulham, Hull and West Ham) but we still managed to get 86 points.
“My obligation is to be positive because I think we have more quality than we are showing. As soon as we start playing well, then maybe people will start saying I am right.”
And yet it is not playing well that is Liverpool's problem, as anyone who saw their 6-1 demolition of Hull would testify. It is that unlike Manchester United, who picked up seven points from highly-questionable displays at home to Arsenal, Sunderland and Bolton, Liverpool have lost the art of picking up points while below their best.
“Sometimes it depends on one or two players, so when we talk about the squad, maybe you need Torres and Gerrard to make the difference,” he said.
“But if we play well and score goals, we don't need their inspiration.”
Tonight’s Key Battles
Dirk Kuyt v Aly Cissokho
Kuyt will return to his more familiar right-sided role after playing up front in the defeat at Sunderland. He has scored freely from that position in the Champions League but Cissokho, an ever-present for Lyon in Europe this term, is quick and versatile with a desire to attack.
Jamie Carragher v Miralem Pjanic
Pjanic, 19, has been Lyon's star this term, scoring three in Europe already and playing a major role in taking Bosnia to the World Cup play-offs. He is fast and raw but dangerous from set-pieces as well as open play. Carragher has been criticised this season for a lack of pace and, if he is not on his game, the youngster will punish him.
Ryan Babel v Jeremy Toulalan
Toulalan has been drafted into Lyon's defence recently due to an injury crisis which sees Mathieu Bodmer, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Cleber Anderson not travelling to Merseyside. The France international midfielder partnered Cris in Lyon's defence for their first defeat of the season on Saturday against Sochaux and may find himself facing Babel in a more central role now that Fernando Torres has been ruled out. Babel has asked for more first-team action this season with the World Cup coming up and now has another chance to impress.