Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea culpa! My Rafa, why had I forsaken you?!

So, Rafa, about what I said earlier ... Look, there's no easy way to say it. I was wrong.

It's amazing, if you come to Match Pricks with any regularity, how often I reference that short-sighted banshee screech I wrote 45 minutes after the match at Wigan. I continue to do it as a sort of self-flagellation to remind myself: 1) Don't ever post so quickly after a tough result for Liverpool when there's a lot at stake, and 2) As a reminder that as a man, as just flesh, blood and bone, I am a flawed creature prone to foolish mistakes.

The rest of this is going to be a long, sloppy, open-mouthed kiss to Rafa Benitez, so if you're not in the mood to endure that sort of thing right now, you might want to scroll down and check out some of Colin's work.

OK, here we go then: Rafa signed a contract extension committing him to Liverpool until 2014. This, clearly, is terrific news. Like I said when Rick Parry revealed he was stepping down at the end of the season, Hicks and Gillett picking a direction and going with it can only help. You've read it elsewhere all season, but stability is everything. Liverpool needs a presence like Fergie/Wenger. Somebody needs to be in charge for a long time, and now Rafa has secured that position. For better or worse, this is where the club is headed now, with Rafa's two hands – and probably a knee, too – firmly on the steering wheel.

And what do we have to go on to place such trust in him? Well, 8 goals in 180 minutes of football against Real Madrid and United is an historic start for the evidence file. At the least, there'll also be consistently excellent performances in Europe. And other than a hiccup last season, the side has become stronger in the League since Rafa arrived in 2004. The problem has always been for his detractors – and I am surely as guilty of this as anyone else – the improvement has not been accomplished quickly enough.

That's because it's damn difficult for a Liverpool supporter to first watch Chelsea's back-to-back titles and then, of course, the hated United do the same (and likely add a third this year) while Rafa struggled to figure things out. (Although David Moores finding that extra £3 million to meet Sevilla's £15 million Dani Alves valuation a few years back might have changed things, but I digress.) It's not easy recognizing the club has just not been good enough.

But it's getting better. Until the January/February mini meltdown, Liverpool was leading the Premier League this season. They did the double this year over Chelsea and, oh so importantly, United. Let's just throw it out there again: 4-1. He's given the fans what they want, a sign of true progress, head to head, against United in the League. That's what we want. We want to overtake United and win the League. It's a longshot to do it this term, but they're closer than they've ever been.

A common refrain from neutrals and rivals is Liverpool fans are always shouting, "Just wait until next year!" Yeah, they have a point, to an extent, but on this evidence Rafa's got things going in the right direction – up. Every year under him the side has gotten stronger. He's adding the pieces. Just wait until you see Insua in 2009-10, dogg. Him and Aurelio at left back. Talk about depth in the squad where previously Rafa had to trot out Djimi Traoré. There's more to come.

Look, just go with it. This is the next five years of our lives as Liverpool supporters. It's been pretty good so far. They've picked a plan. It gradually just keeps working better. And, hey, maybe next year they win away to Wigan? You can do it, Rafa.

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