Q&A with Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez
You've got to feel for Rafa Benitez. His team are unbeaten in the Premier League, only Manchester United have conceded less goals and in Fernando Torres his squad boasts one of the most exciting young strikers in the world.
And yet all Benitez seems to hear are criticisms over his controversial rotation policy and how after four draws and four wins in the league the title is gone for another year.
In an exclusive interview with ESPNsoccernet Benitez explains the erratic form of this team and gives a frank response to those who have criticised his approach to team selection.
The Liverpool manager also discusses the frustrations of being club manager in an international week and assesses the strength of his squad this season, the impact of Torres and his other key signings as well as the club's chances of a trophy this season.
ESPNsoccernet: How do you feel about your current squad?
Benitez: I think that it's the strongest squad I've had here. I am really pleased with this squad.
ESPNsoccernet: You're in a better position in the league at the moment than you were at the same time last year. But you've admitted that there has been a dip in confidence. How do you think you'll try and regain that confidence in the squad?
Benitez: In football it is very easy: Win games. We know we need confidence again, so we must try to play well, try to score and then keep winning, no? That is the key.
ESPNsoccernet: How do you feel when it comes to the international break; there's always the worry of injury and, of course, you've got the derby coming up...
Benitez: It's really difficult, no? It's true that we have some problems, or you can have some problems with players all around the world, but also it's more difficult to train because today I have just one player and one keeper and it's difficult to prepare anything.
ESPNsoccernet: What do you personally do in the break? Do you, do you re-think your tactics, what will you be doing?
Benitez: Well you try to watch some videos, analyse the team, how we are playing, and there are meetings with the staff, and prepare some training sessions for the players that you have. In this case, four or five maximum, today just two!
ESPNsoccernet: You've spoken about the depth of your squad, let's talk about some of the individual players. How do you think Fernando Torres is settling in this season?
Benitez: I think it's ok, no? Everyone had questions about him before [the season], but he's started really well, he's scored some goals, and so everybody goes 'Oh, fantastic, a new top scorer, 20 goals this season!' I thought he would need time but his mentality is really good, and he's trying to play well, sometimes he can play well, sometimes he cannot but he's trying to play and, for me, he'll settle down really well.
ESPNsoccernet: And do you think he's settled into the Premier League style better than you expected?
Benitez: No, when we signed him we knew he was a strong player and could play well with the physical approach of the Premier League.
ESPNsoccernet: And how about some of your other summer signings?
Benitez: If you analyze the signings, some of them are young players - Leto, Lucas Leiva, Ryan Babel, but Voronin and Benayoun, players with experience, are playing well and I think that some players, will need more time.
ESPNsoccernet: Liverpool got off to a flying start at the beginning of the season but they have stumbled a bit recently. Why do you think that is?
Benitez: Because we had started really well people were thinking perhaps this could be our year. We had some chances, but we couldn't score, then we lost some points and then people thought, maybe not. I think there is frustration around the team. Sometimes you don't know if it's better to start really well or a little bit slower and continue progressing. I think we are in a good position at the moment but it's true that we need to improve.
ESPNsoccernet: And it's true that some of the players have experienced a dip in form recently. Why do you think that is specifically?
Benitez: Some players are playing games for us and also for the national teams, it's not easy to go, come back, and be ready. Especially because we have some early kickoffs on Saturdays, you know I am not very happy with this situation, and this one against Everton will be the same, but at the end of the day, you need two or three players playing well and then these key players can help with the rest of the team. We have had some injuries and some players are not playing at their level; that is the reason the team is not playing at their level.
ESPNsoccernet: Let's talk about the Champions League, your specialty. The next game up for you is Besiktas. How much of a challenge do you think they will be for Liverpool?
Benitez: It's really important for us, no? We know that we didn't start really well, so we need to win, and then start thinking about the next game, but for now we have to think about the next three points.
ESPNsoccernet: Yeah, and obviously, home and away against Besiktas. Do you think you have to win those two and also how many points do you think you need to reach the last 16?
Benitez: Really, you cannot say how many points. I think it's important to win the first one. If you can win the first one, you need to see what happened between Marseille and Porto but you just have to wait. It's better to think about one game at a time and then start doing the numbers.
ESPNsoccernet: It was such a disappointing game for you against Marseille, wasn't it? What do you think went wrong?
Benitez: Everything (smiling). Because we're not good enough tactically, technically, mentally and we played against a team that was ready, no? They were training for 10 days without games and a new manager and they were really focused. We started the game well, more or less, but we couldn't control and then [as the game progressed] they were better and better and we didn't have the confidence that we needed. So, ok, they play a good game a we played a bad game.
ESPNsoccernet: On paper, your group looks relatively simple. Did it surprise you how difficult Marseille was?
Benitez: When I knew what the draw was I said that these are teams with experience in Europe, so for me, no, it wasn't easy. And you can see it's not easy. Hopefully it will be ok for us at the end, but now, we need to work really hard because the other teams are now in a better position and have players with experience.
ESPNsoccernet: And we can't go too much further into this interview without mentioning your rotation policy. Obviously you use your policies so that the players can gel as the season goes on, and so that means you have a better squad at the end of the season.
Benitez: I think if you can do the right things, changing players, sometimes you make mistakes but if everything is ok at the end of the season, you can compete for trophies, no? That is the idea.
ESPNsoccernet: Do the players ever complain to you about the rotation system?
Benitez: Not really, they want to play every game but they don't say 'Oh, I want to play this one or the other one'. They want to play every game, but they know the situation because for three years we were doing the same here at Liverpool. I think they understand, they don't like it too much because when they are not playing they want to play but, in the end, they know this is the best for the team.
ESPNsoccernet: This is something though, that you've obviously always done. Why do you think that it's now that everyone's talking about it?
Benitez: Because we've drawn and we've lost some games. But when we were winning, nobody talks about it.
ESPNsoccernet: Do you credit the rotation policy for getting you into the Champions League final on two occasions?
Benitez: I think that people have a short memory, no? Because when you talk about the final of the Carling Cup, the Intercontinental Cup, Community Shield, FA Cup, two Champions Leagues, two titles in Spain, plus the UEFA Cup. It's a lot of trophies and I think that to play three finals at the end of the season, the UEFA Champions League and also the FA Cup, means that the team was ready and thanks to the quality of the players and also the use of different players in different games.
ESPNsoccernet: Going back to the very beginning of this season, was there more focus on the Premier League or on the Champions League?
Benitez: I think that we start out with a real focus on all the competitions. If you say to me, 'Which would you prefer to win?' I would say the Premier League because everybody wants to win the Premier League. But we know that the Champions League is really important, as are the FA Cup and the Carling Cup.
ESPNsoccernet: Focusing on the positives, you're unbeaten so far and already it's October, so you must be pleased about that?
Benitez: Yeah, it's really important. It really was a little disappointing after the weekend (a 2-2 home draw with Tottenham) because we conceded two goals, two big mistakes, but we continue unbeaten and that's important.
ESPNsoccernet: Does it trouble you that you're six points off Arsenal? Is that something that worries you?
Benitez: I think we are in a better position than last year. That is important. If we continue to be close to the top of the table, in two or three months and continue to change players I think we will be capable of doing something at the end of the season.
ESPNsoccernet: And finally, what are your hopes and expectations for Liverpool this season?
Benitez: To win some trophies, if it's possible. And especially now, to improve our play and start winning again with confidence and at the end of the season maybe to win some trophies.