Rafa criticism just has to stop

On Saturday night a name rang around the Mastella Stadium in Valencia for the first time since May 2004. That name belonged to Rafa Benitez as the home fans sang in union "Come back Rafa, come back Rafa".

It says everything about the esteem in which the Liverpool manager is still held in Valencia that more than three years after he departed the La Liga side he remains the man the fans would love to see running their club.

With a pair of league championships and a UEFA Cup won during his stint at the Mastella we shouldn't be surprised that Benitez is still revered there.

Breaking the Real Madrid/Barcelona duoploy marks him out as an iconic figure in the Mediterranean city and seeing as the La Liga title has eluded Valencia ever since Benitez's departure it was always likely that absence would make the heart grow fonder.

In England, meanwhile, the very same Rafa Benitez is finding his ability to turn Liverpool into genuine title challengers questioned and, on occasion, his methods ridiculed whenever results go against his side and sometimes even when they don't.

The criticism of Benitez comes at a time when Liverpool are unbeaten in the league and lie just six points off first place. I repeat, when Liverpool are unbeaten in the league and just six points off first place.

The stick with which the Liverpool manager is being beaten most often is rotation. Apparently, if you listen to his critics, teams which rotate do not win the big prizes.

Well, it certainly worked in Spain so rotation cannot be dismissed as a failure all that easily.

"Ah," say the critics, "that's all well and good but football in England is different to Spain and it'll never work here".

The case for the defence could easily centre on the fact that Benitez has already guided Liverpool to domestic success in the FA Cup (not to mention that continental triviality that is the Champions League).

It might well pain him to do so, but in this case Benitez could quite easily point to Manchester United's Premiership triumph last season.

In the 2006/07 season, Sir Alex Ferguson used a total of 23 players en route to the title. At Anfield, Benitez used six more.

Significantly, five of those selected by Benitez only featured in Liverpool's last three games of the season when the focus had shifted from domestic to continental pursuits with key first team players making way for youngsters as the Champions League final loomed.

So, for the most part of the season, Benitez and Ferguson utilised squads of an almost idenitical size.

When it comes down to rotation, the two managers both made constant changes to their sides throughout the season and looked on track to record an almost identical number of changes until Liverpool secured their place in the following season's Champions League and Benitez began to make more and more changes in a bid to assess the quality of his younger squad players and the club's priority shifted to that meeting with Milan.

So, again, both Benitez and Ferguson used rotation. The difference? United won the title and Liverpool didn't.

This season, the criticism of Benitez's methods has grown more and more ridiculous with every passing week. So much so that their are now people far less qualified who feel they have the right to tell the Liverpool manager what his team should be.

Sensationalism is masquerading as analysis and it has got to stop. By all means question Rafa Benitez but it has to be done with perspective.

Trophies aren't handed out in October and we will all only know if the Reds boss' system will pay dividends come next May.

But if you have doubts about whether Benitez's methods should be accepted then consider the words of another of Valencia's favourite sons, centre forward David Villa.

In a recent interview, Villa was asked how Valencia had managed to be beaten by Chelsea in last season's Champions League quarter finals despite having gone 2-1 up on aggregate at home.

His answer was revealing: "It is very simple. We had a very small squad last season so the manager (Quique Sanchez Florez) could not rotate as much as he would have liked.

"By the end of the season we had played a lot of games, too many games, and we were tired and carrying injuries and when Chelsea came back we had nothing left to give."

It is this kind of endemic exhaustion that Benitez is trying to avoid at Anfield.

Rotation is new to the English game and in a country as insular and naturally conservative as this one it was always going to be viewed with suspicion.

But it is all too easy to blame all a club's ills on a selection process when results go against it. When Liverpool were beaten by Marseilles last week the usual suspects again argued that the defeat was caused by rotation.

This was despite the fact that physically the Liverpool players were at their highest level for several weeks. They were fresh and the occasional rests they had been given were the reason for this.

The problem was, their physical attributes were fatally undermined by a lack of confidence which meant their technical and tactical skills simply did not function.

It was a bad, bad performance but to lay the blame for it at the door of rotation is lazy in the extreme.

Just three seasons ago, the very same critics claimed that every single goal Liverpool conceded from a set piece was caused by this new fangled zonal marking system that Benitez had brought with him from Valencia.

Now, no-one even talks about it. The reason why? Liverpool hardly ever concede a goal from a set piece anymore while other teams which use more traditional man-to-man marking systems continue to concede them on a much more regular basis.

So the message is simple - support the manager and support his methods. Let the critics have their say but never lose sight of the fact that we have one of the most tactically astute coaches in European football who has a record of success that few can get near and most envy.

Oh, and his Liverpool team is still unbeaten in the Premiership as autumn kicks in.

Those fans at the Mastella know all too well that Benitez is a special manager - that's why they still sing his name - so let him get on with the job in hand at Anfield and let's see where we end up in May.

(Courtesy: www.liverpoolfc.tv)

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