Has the Ryan Babel mystery finally been solved?

How many times have we seen a hyped-up young sensation arrive on these shores from the continent, hailed as the next Pelé /Maradona/Jesus on forums across the Internet, only to subsequently flounder under the burden of expectation? If you’re a Liverpool fan who has perused the content of a certain popular video-sharing website, chances are you’ve seen footage of Ryan Babel tearing defences to shreds with a combination of searing pace, trickery and technique. Unfortunately the Anfield faithful have only seen sporadic flashes of this Ryan Babel; instead we’ve more often than not witnessed the infuriatingly inconsistent Ryan Babel, the Ryan Babel more likely to run into defenders or cannon the ball into the upper reaches of The Kop.

But worry no longer fellow Liverpool fans. On the eve of Liverpool’s biggest game of the season, the (sometimes) flying Dutchman has claimed to have reached a turning point in his Anfield career, assuring Reds’ fans that “the best will definitely come.” With injuries to Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and David N’gog, as well as the banishment of Albert Riera, Babel has never been given a bigger opportunity to stake his claim for a regular berth in the Liverpool first-team. Will Ryan Babel finally step up to the plate, or do his words amount to nothing more than another false dawn in the career of the hugely underachieving Dutchman?

The recent January transfer window was rife with suggestions that the winger would be trading Anfield for the less glamorous surroundings of St. Andrews, with these suggestions seeming to gather pace following his decision to publicly vent his frustration at being left out of Liverpool’s squad for their trip to Stoke City on Twitter. Ultimately, the deal failed to materialise and Babel remained on Merseyside.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Babel admitted that these rumours had a detrimental effect upon his form, stating that “it is difficult to focus 100% when you know you are the subject of something that can influence your game.” Babel added that, “During that period people were telling me negative and positive things and that made me think about different things and you cannot concentrate on football. When you read in one paper that Liverpool want to get rid of you – even though you know it is not true – it is those little things which confuse you.”

It’s all very well blaming tabloid speculation for his attitude, but Babel’s outings were plagued by poor form long before these rumours came to the fore. Many of his first-team starts, such as away to Tottenham on the opening day of the season, saw Babel virtually non-existent on the left-wing, failing to make the most of any openings and unable to beat defenders.

It may be unfair to lay all the culpability for Babel’s lack of progress upon the player himself; manager Rafa Benitez can certainly shoulder some of the blame for this too. Benitez’s sporadic, infrequent use of Babel since his arrival from Ajax in the summer of 2007 has certainly hampered the player’s first-team development. Damning statistics reveal that in nearly three seasons at Anfield, Babel has only started 29 Premier League matches, but has appeared as a substitute a staggering 51 times in the league. This statistic is all the more revealing when taking into consideration Benitez’s stubborn refusal to make changes before the 70-minute mark. Young players need regular first-team football in order to fully blossom, and Benitez’s stop-start use of Babel has certainly prevented the player from doing so.

Critics of Benitez have pointed to the Spaniard’s deployment of his preferred ‘favourites’, and thus far it seems that Babel does not fall into this camp. One need only look at the wealth of consistent first-team opportunities afforded to inferior young players such as Lucas and Emiliano Insúa to see that Babel has yet to prove his worth to Benitez. No-one would argue that Babel possesses a greater deal of talent and potential than these two Anfield youngsters, but Benitez has failed to provide Babel with the first-team runs needed to build upon this.

Liverpool fans will be hoping that the enigmatic Dutchman’s latest comments are indicative of a new, more mature Ryan Babel. During his time so far we have seen glimpses of the magic of Ryan Babel, such as the cheeky back heeled finish against Beşiktas and the thunderous 25-yarder against Olympique Lyonnais, but unfortunately these moments of beauty have been dwarfed by barren stretches of inconsistency. I for one hope that a player who has received more second chances than Ashley Cole will finally mature into the player we’ve all hoped that he would become.

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