I was fairly sceptical when Rafa Benitez bought Albert Riera from Espanyol a year ago. It was not because I thought he was a bad player but I didn’t think his game fitted the Premier League. When he first came to England on loan at Manchester City the first thought I had was that although he was a relatively tall player, he had a slight build and would be pushed off the ball too many times to be effective. During his time back in Spain after his return to Espanyol, he improved his technical game tremendously, managing to bypass opponents and provide pinpoint accurate crosses for his strikers. Like any high performing Spanish player, his performances were quickly brought to the attention of Rafa Benitez and his chief scout in Spain. Benitez decided to spend £8m on the player in 2008 and he was brought to the club to provide some extra width.
I, like many other Liverpool supporters, had question marks over Riera’s abilities to cope with the demands of the Premier League but we trusted Rafa enough to give the player a chance. Riera did enough in his first season to win over me and many others. He has improved all assets of his game since he last played in England and he now provides Liverpool with that different dimension that all clubs need to break down teams: width. Riera himself is delighted to be back in England and would love to stay a long time:
I’m very happy at Liverpool and I don’t see a reason to go. The Premier League, Liverpool – those are two big attractions. You also never know what might happen. When I was at Manchester City I didn’t want to go back to Spain or to Espanyol, but I had to. It’s a question of seeing how you feel, of trying things. When Sami Hyypia turned up at Liverpool, he probably didn’t expect to be there for 10 years, so you never know … I wouldn’t mind following in Sami’s footsteps.
In the absence of David Silva in the Spanish national side, Riera has started more regularly for his country in the last year. For both Liverpool and Spain he has impressed with his skilful play; he loves little give and gos, he excels whipping in balls from the touchline and he can skin many a good full back. The Spanish winger also likes a shot and his strike against Aston Villa is a testament to these abilities as he stuck a half volley from a long ball off the bar into the goal.
So all in all, Riera has been a success, but not a run away success mind you, it’s still too early in his Liverpool career to put him up there as one of Benitez’s best signings. Injuries have certainly hampered his progress this season. He has only started 7 games this season and when he returned to action against Birmingham a few weeks ago, he pulled a hamstring and was estimated to be out for at least another month. He again returned off the bench in the Merseyside derby and made a telling contribution as he struck a shot which was parried by Tim Howard allowing Dirk Kuyt to score off the rebound and seal a very important victory over Liverpool’s city rivals.
In the next few weeks as Riera returns to full fitness we will know where he fits into Benitez’s plans this season. I personally hope he starts the majority of games for he not only gives Liverpool much needed width which is lacking when Benitez persists with Dirk Kuyt on the opposite flank, but he provides some much needed flair and invention to unlock defences especially against smaller teams.