Friday, April 25, 2008

Benitez Is Right To Rotate Lineup

Despite former Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock’s furious claims to the contrary last season and more whining this week, Rafa Benitez has every right to rotate his squad for a game against a relegation-threatened team.

This issue has come up in recent days because Liverpool will make the trip to St. Andrew’s and play 18th place Birmingham City tomorrow. The Reds are in the middle of their Champions League semifinal tie against Chelsea, and they’ll need to be as close to full-strength as possible heading into next Wednesday’s second leg at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool has to score there, something that has literally been impossible under Benitez’s tenure, to advance to their third CL final in four years.

Mathematically, Liverpool needs three points in their final three Premiership games to clinch 4th spot and the last Champions League berth that comes with it. Realistically, though, they already have a stranglehold on it and could probably not even earn another point for the rest of the season and still be ok.

Benitez sent out a second-string lineup at Craven Cottage and still managed to dominate a desperate Fulham team, coming out of West London with a 2-0 victory. The term “second-string” is relative, though, because Liverpool’s backups are still good enough to start for the majority of teams in the league.

This is part of the reason I don’t want to hear guys like Neil Warnock and more recently, Steve Bruce, slam Benitez for resting his stars. It’s not just Warnock and Bruce either; Benitez has had his share of critics in the media for what he’s going to do.

“It undermines the competition and integrity of the game”, they’ll say, or “It gives other teams unfair advantages”. You know what I’m talking about, the typical moaning and groaning from people with a vested interest while trying to make it sound like they have the game’s best intentions at heart.

Let me tell you something right now. That’s rubbish. It just is. It’s BS of the highest order.

Rafa Benitez doesn’t owe anyone other than Liverpool FC anything. It’s that simple. As the manager of that club, he is responsible for their best interests, whatever they may be. He is entitled to do whatever he needs to do, as long as it’s legal, obviously, to make sure that those goals are met. He doesn’t owe Steve Bruce or Neil Warnock anything. He doesn’t owe the Premier League and sentiment anything.

Benitez can play whoever he wants against Birmingham. There is strong talk that the only regular player Benitez will put out there is Jamie Carragher, and even that is no guarantee as far as from what I can tell. It seems like a fair bet that Gerrard, Torres, Alonso, Reina, Babel, Riise, Kuyt, and Mascherano all won’t play, or at least won’t start. Relatively inexperienced players like Charles Itanjie, Emiliano Insua, and Damien Plessis could all get a run-out.

You know what? Good for them. Liverpool has to come up with the goods next Wednesday, and it makes no sense for Benitez to risk his best players in a meaningless game, at least from Liverpool’s point of view. Birmingham needs points and will come out playing a physical, in-your-face style, and Benitez can’t afford for any of his players to get injured.

To his credit, Bolton boss Gary Megson has come out and said that he doesn’t care who Benitez plays against Birmingham. Bolton is in the thick of the relegation fight, and it would be understandable if Megson lashed out and urged Benitez to pick his strongest team.

Instead, he believes that “Rafa Benitez has to do what is best for Liverpool and we all have to do what is best for our own teams…The fact Liverpool can rest players and still put out that kind of side just shows the size of the squad and quality they have got.”

I applaud Megson for saying this, and he’s got it right. He also told Sky Sports News that “Rafa’s team and his selection is nothing to do with me or indeed anybody else other than Rafa and Liverpool”.

Spot-on, Mr. Megson. Spot on.

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