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Feb 26, 2007

Who is right? Gerrard or Benitez?

His ideas can confounded others, but Rafael Benitez is not easily dissuaded from them, no matter how many and how vocal the opponents they attract. Steven Gerrard may be about to discover that.

The Liverpool captain should savour the central segment of this season, if only because it may represent his last extended run in his preferred position in the middle of midfield.

Since his restoration there in November, Liverpool have seen an upturn in their results - cup clashes against Arsenal excepted - and Gerrard has rediscovered his goal touch.

The lobby of ex-players who invariably contend that Liverpool's best player should operate where he wants to appeared vindicated. They can cite Saturday's tour de force from the Liverpool captain against Sheffield United as evidence.

Events of the last month suggest Benitez may not concur, and that he may be correct.

Amongst a host of outstanding performances in the Nou Camp, the outstanding one (albeit lacking entirely in golf-themed celebrations) came from Momo Sissoko. The Malian midfielder represents arguably Benitez's best buy and Barcelona have an indication why; his remarkable stamina and insatiable appetite for tackling is allied with unselfish positional discipline.

Add in the neat, unobtrusive Xabi Alonso and Benitez has his first-choice defensive midfield combination, a partnership who shielded the back four wonderfully well in the Nou Camp. Neither was prone, as Gerrard is, to dash upfield; neither too distracted by his capabilities in the final third to neglect his basic duties.

Lest that appear criticism, it should not be ignored that Gerrard, in a far more advanced position, supplied the most perceptive pass of the match to Dirk Kuyt, leading indirectly to John Arne Riise's winner. His second assist and his goal against Sheffield United came, in open play, from positions Benitez may not have wanted his central midfielders to adopt in Barcelona.

That set the template for both team selection and the gameplan in away fixtures. At Anfield, where the onus is on them to attack, a defensive duo may be redundant. The concept of a progressive central midfielder is more relevant there, as Gerrard demonstrated in Saturday's dominant display.

But, after being reduced to just Alonso and Gerrard in the centre of midfield for the best part of three months, options now abound for Benitez. The latest, Javier Mascherano, is a blue-chip addition to his squad and, significantly, accustomed to operating rather deeper than Gerrard does.

Last season, Gerrard was the Premiership's most influential right-sided midfielder
His recruitment may represent a piece of opportunism from Benitez; players of the calibre of the Argentine rarely present themselves as cheaply and willingly, even if his reputation has been dented by his misguided spell at West Ham.

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the Liverpool manager repeating the mistakes of the Alans, Pardew and Curbishley, and marginalising one of the most astute midfielders at the World Cup, especially as Mascherano is well equipped to participate in the tactical game of chess Benitez often favours in midfield.

And having started the season with only three specialist central midfielders, albeit augmented by the lightweight duo of Bolo Zenden and Fabio Aurelio, Benitez now boasts an enviable quartet; it is the position where Liverpool have most genuine strength in depth. That could encourage him to field a trio in the centre - whether in a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 formation - but Gerrard is alone in regularly occupying another place.

Of the four, Sissoko and Gerrard provide most dynamism, especially essential in domestic football, even if accompanied by a partner playing at a rather more sedate pace. That may indicate that Mascherano and Alonso is an unlikely partnership, particularly in the Premiership. But with Sissoko surely indispensable, it still suggests Gerrard's role is on the right.

His sympathisers will regard him as the victim of his versatility. But, last season, he was the Premiership's most influential right-sided midfielder when, as Benitez rarely tires of mentioning, he scored 23 goals.

He was also capable of helping transform both a UEFA Cup final and an international against Argentina as a right-back; not that Benitez is likely to deploy his skipper there, but further evidence of his adaptability nonetheless. But a station further forward on the right may suit both club and country.

World-class wingers continue to elude Benitez, though there is little doubt that he has targeted several. Jermaine Pennant's improved form should be put into context; his effectiveness on the touchline is still dwarfed by Gerrard's.

And with Frank Lampard, vital as he remains to Chelsea, appearing incapable of acclimatising to another role, Steve McClaren's uneasy compromise in Israel is likely to involve shifting his vice-captain, given that he refuses to countenance dropping either.

A station on the right appears the cause of frustration to Gerrard; his body language betrays his annoyance whenever he is unable to influence Liverpool's more insipid performances. Yet Benitez can argue that a strong midfield base, of the sort set by Sissoko, accompanied by either Alonso or Mascherano, can provide the platform for Gerrard to win matches.

At the moment, there is a stronger case for Gerrard to play central midfield for England than Liverpool. Because Benitez, who has a strong streak of stubbornness, does not appear to have changed his contention that Gerrard can be at his most productive in his less favoured role.

And while he retains his capacity to surprise - which invariably involves the risk of erring - when Benitez is correct, as last Wednesday in Barcelona showed, he gets it very, very right.


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