With the curtains due to close upon Liverpool’s awful annus horribilis, thoughts of many Liverpool fans (yours truly included) have turned to summer rebuilding and planning for the next Premiership season. The devastating twelve-month slump from finishing within a hair’s breadth of the Premier League title to scrapping for fourth place has seen the knives sharpened for Liverpool’s beleaguered manager Rafael Benitez. Whilst Rafa has certainly shouldered the lion’s share of the responsibility, the finger of blame must also be pointed in the direction of some of Liverpool’s woefully under-performing players.
It is evident that Liverpool’s squad needs trimming; Liverpool’s squad is one of the biggest in the league (In March 2009, Michel Platini condemned their 62 man-squad). There are several pieces of deadwood that should probably be given the chance to flourish away from L4. Thanks to the best efforts of Statler and Waldorf to bleed Liverpool dry, it’s quite clear that Rafa (or whoever is manning the Anfield hot-seat this summer) will have to sell before he can buy. The following five players, in the opinion of this writer, could or should be sacrificed in order to make way for new blood at Anfield.
Name: Fábio Aurélio
It is with a heavy heart that I kick off this list with Fábio Aurélio. A man responsible for two of the most memorable Liverpool free-kicks in recent memory (see Manchester United and Chelsea away last season), Aurélio unfortunately seems to be made of glass (is he an Arsenal player in disguise?). The 30-year-old Brazilian, whose four-year stay at Anfield has been plagued by injury, is available on a Bosman this summer. Aurélio’s repeated injury problems have discouraged the Anfield hierarchy from offering him a new contract, and it has been rumoured that Greek side Olympiakos are looking to pick him up on a free transfer.
It’s no secret that the left-back berth has been a problematic area for Liverpool in recent years, with the declining form and subsequent sale of John Arne Riise, inexperience of Emiliano Insúa and failure of Andrea Dossena all indicative of the trouble Rafa Benitez has had with this position. When fully-fit Aurélio has certainly been the most worthy contender for the position. Aside from his sound defensive abilities, the Brazilian is undoubtedly in possession of a wand of a left-foot, as well as being versatile enough to competently perform at left-midfield and as a defensive midfielder. Benitez, familiar with Aurélio from their time together at Valencia, noted upon Aurélio’s arrival at Anfield that “he can cross the ball superbly and he is maybe a better passer of the ball than Xabi Alonso.” High praise indeed.
However, it seems that Aurélio is more familiar with the treatment room at Melwood than the pitch at Anfield. Averaging just under 18 league appearances a season since his arrival in the summer of 2006, it is clear that Liverpool cannot rely upon Aurélio to make the left-back position his own. Offering Aurélio another contract would surely represent a risk, and given the precarious predicament of Liverpool’s finances the money used on Aurélio’s new contract may be better spent on acquiring his replacement. Whilst Aurélio’s Anfield tenure could hardly be regarded as a failure, it could have been so much more.
Name: Philipp Degen
Unlike Aurélio, Philipp Degen is not a player who has really endeared himself to the Liverpool faithful. Arriving at Anfield from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2008, Degen joined the club with a lowly reputation, for an even lower transfer fee (he joined the club on a Bosman). In fairness, Degen hasn’t really had the fairest crack of the whip at Liverpool, having only made 10 appearances in all competitions in just under two seasons. Subject to a series of unfortunate injuries that would make Harry Kewell blush, Degen’s performances (when fit) have not really suggested that he is good enough to warrant a starting, or rotation berth in Liverpool’s side.
With England’s first-choice right-back Glen Johnson a shoo-in for the corresponding spot in Benitez’s line-up, Degen only really exists at Anfield in a back-up capacity. At 27, it is unlikely that Degen will drastically improve, and keeping him on the books will undoubtedly serve to stunt the progress and development of Academy graduates Martin Kelly (19) and Stephen Darby (21). Kelly in particular looks like a great prospect for the future, having impressed hugely in Liverpool’s 2-1 home defeat to Olympique Lyonnais earlier this season.
If Rafa wants to improve the quality of his squad, disposing of Degen would surely be one step in the right direction.
Name: Nabil El Zhar
Thus far the Liverpool 2010 summer clearout list resembles a car-boot sale, and the addition of Nabil El Zhar to the list doesn’t really change that. The Moroccan winger joined the club from Saint-Etienne in 2006 with high hopes of breaking into the first team and adding some much needed width and flair. However, El Zhar, 24 this year (to put it into context for you, James Milner is 24), has yet to fulfil his promise and looks unlikely to do so at this level.
Aside from scoring a 30-yard screamer against Cardiff on his Liverpool debut, El Zhar has yet to show exactly what it is that he brings to the Liverpool team. His lack of quality shown thus far is such that some have derided El Zhar as some sort of “substitute lucky charm”; this theory was put forward on the basis that he was brought on in games during the 2008/09 season where Liverpool won thanks to a late goal.
Bafflingly, Rafa thought it was a good idea to extend his contract last summer to 2012. We can only assume that this was in the hope of securing a larger transfer fee for El Zhar upon his eventual departure.
Name: Charles Itandje
Yes – Charles Itandje really IS still on the payroll at Anfield. Having performed a quick Google-search, it appears that the disgraced custodian is currently on loan at Greek side Kavala (I’d never heard of them either). His disrespectful behaviour during 2009’s Hillsborough memorial service led to a club-suspension and banishment to Greece, where he has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Craig Moore and Ebi Smolarek.
Itandje has made only 7 domestic cup appearances for Liverpool, and didn’t really impress in any of those outings. Most notably, his inability to deal with Brian Howard’s last minute drive saw Liverpool humiliatingly succumb to Championship side Barnsley in the 2008 FA Cup.
Presumably Itandje is only still contracted to Liverpool because the club couldn’t persuade Kavala to take him off their hands permanently. Itandje still has a year left to run on his current Liverpool contract and we can only pray that someone will help to cut his Anfield stay short.
Name: Albert Riera
Oh Albert, how and where did it all go wrong? It was going so well…
In light of his rant last month, it appears that Manacor’s most outspoken winger is in possession of a one-way ticket out of Merseyside. Disillusioned by a lack of first-team football and Liverpool’s terminal decline, Riera labelled Liverpool a “sinking ship” and blasted manager Benitez’s alleged failure to communicate with his players. Obviously irked by this untimely outburst (these comments emerged the day before Liverpool’s crucial Europa League tie against OSC Lille), Benitez immediately expressed his desire to offload the Spanish international and has showed no signs of backing down (Riera has not featured for the club since).
Signed from Espanyol during the last few days of the 2008 summer transfer window, Riera looked to have solved Liverpool’s troublesome left-wing problems with a series of impressive displays, most notably on his Liverpool debut against Manchester United. Riera, a naturally left-footed “touchline hugger”, added some much needed width to a narrow Liverpool side and seemed to have established himself in the starting line-up. Despite some difficulty adapting to the intensity of the English game (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Riera last until the 75-minute-mark), Riera’s first season at Anfield can be considered a success.
Not dissimilar to some of his more illustrious team-mates, Riera’s form this term has been characterised by some abject displays. All too often the winger has been seen to drift out of games, and his lack of pace for a player in his position has become increasingly notable. His campaign has been hampered by injury too which hasn’t helped his cause.
Having effectively burned his bridges with Benitez, it now seems a case of when, not if, Riera will exit Anfield. Riera’s inevitable departure is a bit of a shame. Aside from Ryan Babel, Riera is the only first-team player who really offers genuine, natural width. A good squad player, Riera offers a different threat to some of the other attacking players such as Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun, and he can be devastating when on-form (for example, against Aston Villa at home during the 2008/09 season). Mooted moves to Moscow failed to materialise earlier this month, but given that his wife is Russian, it’ll be no surprise if he does end up moving east.
If only he’d kept his mouth shut…