Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Summer of Apprehension for the Reds

Jamie Carragher would like an end to Xabi Alonso transfer saga. It's hard to blame him.

As anyone who remotely follows English football knows, Liverpool have not won a top flight English league championship since 1990. Since then, Manchester United have won 11 league titles and tied the Reds with 18 overall. Last year was the closest Liverpool have come to winning the title since 1990, finishing second in the table for only the third time in that span and only four points adrift of Man U. The current squad, lacking in depth but featuring perhaps the best starting eleven in English football, was thought to be one or two pieces away from reclaiming their place at the top of the table. And with Ronaldo off to Spain, perhaps it was all finally coming together.

But the summer has been consumed by transfer rumors involving Xabi Alonso and Mascherano. The two center midfielders are the heart of everything that Liverpool does. To lose either would be a severe blow, and to lose both would be devastating.

It's hard to rule out either potential departure at his writing. Xabi Alonso seems to discuss how impressed he is with Real Madrid whenever microphones are around. At this point the rumors for Alonso have been in the papers for the entire summer, and it's almost hard to imagine him not leaving, if not before Benitez manages to extract another 5 million euros or so. Mascherano's possible departure has been a bit more under the radar, but Mascherano's agent did his best to drop a match in the gasoline can. His agent claimed that the midfielder is tired of England and wants to move to Spain. At this point, who doesn't. Benitez insists in both cases that the players are staying, though he seems to be more adamant about Mascherano than Alonso.

The other pieces to challenge for the title appear to be in place. Glen Johnson was added to the backline, joining Carragher, Skrtel, Fabio Aurelio, Agger and Arbeloa. If Arbeloa stays, and to an extent even if he doesn't, this team should have very capable defending. That assumes good health, as Skrtel took a knock in Thailand. Likewise, the key up top is to keep Torres healthy; he scored 14 goals in only 20 starts, and the whole lineup must be rearranged when he is absent. With Torres in, Gerrard can play behind him to devastating effect. It seems too obvious to state Gerrard's value, provided he stays out of jail, of course. Kuyt can play a second striker role or over on the right. Reira is able on the left so long as he doesn't have to use his right foot under any circumstances. Benayoun provides depth and versatility. And Pepe Reina is an asset in goal.

But if Mascherano and Alonso both left, it's likely none of that would matter. Obviously Benitez would have to bring in at least one central midfielder, but there would be no one available with the quality of either. Plus any player brought in now would have nowhere near the understanding with Gerrard and Torres. And the internal answers are lacking as well. Gerrard could move back to a true central midfield position, but that reduces his availability to attack. Otherwise Liverpool have Benayoun and Lucas; if Lucas is starting the majority of games, Liverpool are unlikely to top the table at season's end. Frankly, the same is probably true if the Israeli is starting 30+ games in central midfield.

Any other additions, such as Ashley Young, would certainly be a bonus. But the real task for Benitez is to keep the heart of central midfield at Anfield. Will they stay or will they go? The summer of apprehension continues.

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