7 Dec 2007

Has Rafa's injury gamble ended Xabi Alonso's Anfield career?

Rafael Benitez’s fatal decision to rush Xabi Alonso back from injury earlier this season may have a profound and unwanted effect on the Spanish playmaker's Liverpool future.

Add to that the form of Javier Mascherano; the rise of Lucas Leiva; interest from Athletico Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus and a need for first team games to to ensure Euro 2008 selection, it is not inconceivable that Alonso may call time on his career at Anfield.

Before he was injured against Portsmouth on September 15th, Alonso had been an early victim of Rafa’s rotation policy, starting 4 games and warming the bench for 3, including being an unused sub in two Champions League encounters with Toulouse.

With Gerrard out injured against Derby, Alonso seized his chance and proceeded to run the show as Liverpool battered the rams, with Alonso scoring 2 of the 6 goals that day.

Then disaster struck: Alonso was injured against Portsmouth - a devastating blow for the Basque maestro, who was clearly high in confidence after his Derby heroics.

So Alonso was injured. It happens to most players at one time or another, so need for alarm. The fatal blow came 43 days later, when Benitez inexplicably rushed him back from injury and put him in the starting line up against Arsenal.

It was gamble by Benitez that spectacularly failed to pay off. Alonso aggravated the same injury he had suffered against Portsmouth and was forced off. Just for the sake of clarity, here is the proof that it *was* the same injury:

Portsmouth Injury Report: http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/news/archivedirs/news/2007/sep/20/N157043070920-0839.htm

Arsenal Injury Report: http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/news/archivedirs/news/2007/oct/29/N157487071029-1303.htm

Alonso was rushed back after just six weeks, which was a major mistake considering every player in world football who has had the same injury has taken much longer to recover. Examples: Wayne Rooney - 14 weeks. Steven Gerrard - 10 weeks.

As a man of fixed footballing ideas, who regularly espouses the positive virtues of regular rotation, It's puzzling that Benitez completely contradicted himself with his Arsenal team selection.

What was the point of playing Alonso, who was nowhere near match fit? Why didn't fully fit Lucas Leiva or Momo Sissoko play instead? Using barely fit players surely flies in the face of Benitez’s philosophy of rotating to keep them fit?

As a result of that catastrophic decision, Alonso has missed a further 5 weeks of the season – a period of time that has coincided with Liverpool’s electric run of form.

What is perhaps most worrying for Alonso though is the rise and rise of Javier Mascherano. Such is Benitez’s desperation to sign the Argentinean permanently, he has willingly incurred the wrath of the club’s owners by (allegedly) attempting to broker a secret deal behind the scenes.

Benitez has also been singing Mascherano’s praises in the press, making it abundantly clear how highly he rates the midfield stopper:

"He is playing well and everyone knows he is a good player and there are not too many world-class holding midfielders around. He wants to stay, our supporters like him and we will try to keep him."

None of this looks good for Alonso who, by his own admission, needs first team football in order to ensure selection for Euro 2008:

"I…want to play for Spain at Euro 2008 so want to get the necessary minutes on the field."

At this moment, that is impossible. When he returns from injury, how will Alonso dislodge the in-form partnership of Steven Gerrard and Mascherano? The team has seemingly discovered a winning formula, and Benitez would be mad to break up a winning team.

On top of everything else, Alonso has the emergence of Lucas Leiva to contend with – a player who is similar in style and ability to the cultured Spanish International.

In the midst of all this, the rumours floating around about Athletico Madrid's interest don’t seem to be going away, and Alonso himself has not done anything to publicly refute them. Indeed, in a recent interview, without being prompted, Alonso mentioned interest from Barça, the club where his father was a hero during his playing days:

"I have heard about the rumours involving Atlético and maybe Barcelona too but, formally, I know nothing".

Freudian slip? I doubt it.

Who knows what might have been if Rafa had just waited one more game and allowed Alonso’s injury to heal properly. Instead, Alonso is stuck on the sidelines whilst the team goes from strength to strength in his absence.

With Alonso’s comments, Gerrard and Mascherano cementing their partnership, the emergence of Lucas and Euro 2008 looming in the distance, I can really see Alonso leaving in January. It’s already December and he’s still not fit; can he really afford to risk being kept on the sidelines by the form of others or Rafa’s rotation policy?

The proposed signing of Mascherano is ominous for another reason: You don’t spend 17m on a player and then leave him on the bench. It’s almost a certainty that Benitez sees Mascherano as a starter, and there’s no way Steven Gerrard is going to be dropped, so where does that leave Alonso?

I would rather Liverpool kept Alonso, let Mascherano leave and used the 17m to buy a genuinely creative winger. After all, with Gerrard, Sissoko, Alonso and Lucas, do Liverpool really, desperately *need* Mascherano that much? Is it the case that if Mascherano was to leave, Liverpool would wither and die? Again, I would argue no.

One thing is clear – Athletico Madrid Manager Javier Aguirre is a big fan:

"Alonso is a big player and very important to any team because he helps defenders and also links with the attack. Today this type of player is almost unique and very valuable for a club."

It would be a tragedy to lose Alonso, as he is one of Rafa’s finest signings and is blessed with an essential skill that Steven Gerrard just does not possess: the ability to intelligently dictate the pace of play. He is a joy to watch, and Liverpool should do everything to keep him if and when the time comes.


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