You might be forgiven for thinking that Rafa Benitez is facing the biggest decision of his managerial career according some reports in this morning’s national newspapers, deciding whether Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard should play against Birmingham tonight. They say that as Benitez has only won 1 game in 8 matches, he is under enormous pressure to risk both his injured star players in order to attain a win before the international break, for if he loses he would be under seemingly unbearable scrutiny to quit a job he has been so successful in, where only a few months ago his side were pushing Manchester United all the way for the title.
The fact is Liverpool are facing Birmingham tonight, and no disrespect to Birmingham fans, but if Liverpool cannot win against this side without Torres and Gerrard, then there are real storm clouds on the horizon for both Benitez and the club in general. Even if he does fail to win tonight, the pressure on his job is probably much less than many journalists think. He still has the support of a large majority of Liverpool fans and still also has the backing of the owners and the managing director Christian Purslow, all of which, for financial or for genuine footballing reasons, cannot yet see a scenario where it would be prudent to sack the manager.
In regards to the debate to whether Torres and Gerrard should play tonight, I would definitely advise Benitez, if I was in a position to do so, to not risk either of them. Torres, who is believed to have a sportsman’s hernia, could make his injury even worse if he plays and the international break would be the ideal opportunity to rest a player whose goals will be crucial for Benitez in the months ahead in more critical games. It is said that Torres needs at least three weeks rest from his injury, but if he aggravates the injury he will require and operation which could keep him out from one to three months depending on the seriousness of the injury.
In regards to Gerrard, the decision to keep him out is far the simpler out of the two. Without Torres, Benitez has no other world-class striker to call upon, but with the return of Alberto Aquilani from long-term injury, Benitez should decide to start the attacking midfielder for his home debut, allowing Gerrard to rest over the international break to fully recover from the groin injury he is struggled to get over since coming off early in the Champions League home tie against Lyon.
Whatever Rafa decides, he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, a situation he is all too aware of:
‘I know I will be criticised whatever decision I make, but in the end it’s a medical decision rather than the manager saying we need this or we need that. We have to do the best for the players and the best for the team and at this moment the priority is to have the players for a long time and do the right thing.’
I think that is crucial in what Benitez is saying, to have the players for a ‘long time.’ Not just for one match. Of course, if he doesn’t win, the pressure will be on him and speculation will mount over the international break, but if they get injured, the problems will be even worse. There is of course a temptation to play them to start a run of good form and this is one of the reasons why Benitez is even contemplating picking the pair. Both Torres and Gerrard are in the provisional squad for tonight’s game and it appears Benitez will leave the decision until the last moment to give both of them as much time as possible to recover.
I believe the long term fitness of the pair is crucial to Benitez’s future, not the short term, as his job is not under immediate threat. Neither player should be risked for short term gain when the long term will decide the manager’s fate. If Gerrard is not fit to play against Brazil as Benitez says than he is not fit to play tonight and I think Benitez will see the long term implications. With Albert Riera, Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel and Alberto Aquilani, all fit to start, I believe Benitez will decide on the right course of action to leave both of them out.