Quota could mean Liverpool cull
As he trotted along the touchline at Anfield last Wednesday, Andriy Voronin was greeted with generous applause. It probably had something to do with the fact that, a matter of metres away, the rather more popular Javier Mascherano was also warming up. Nonetheless, it was a moment the Ukrainian may want to savour.
This season, he is Liverpool's specialist substitute, the understudy to Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres who tends to be granted a cameo either if a game is already won or when Liverpool are pursuing an equaliser. Next season, however, bodes rather less well for the Ukrainian.
And not just for him. Others on the fringes of Liverpool team may also be advised to consult removal firms and instruct their agents to generate interest. The reason is the Premier League's new quota on home-grown players, due to be implemented from next summer. At least eight members of a 25-man squad must be trained for three years at an English or Welsh club before they are 21 to meet the criteria.
That, in short, poses problems for those who deal largely in imported talent. Liverpool and Chelsea are the two most obvious examples and, at Anfield, there are likely to be repercussions. Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson should form three of the domestic contingent: at the moment, the other five registered home-grown players in the Champions League squad are Stephen Darby, Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing, Nathan Eccleston and David Amoo. Spearing flourished as a substitute against Real Madrid last season, but that quintet have a combined total of zero starts in the Premier League.
All of which means several things. Firstly, that each may get a chance. Secondly, Rafa Benitez will have to buy British more often. Thirdly, given the restrictions on his budget, that cut-price Englishmen, or those whose contracts expire next summer, may provoke unprecedented interest from Anfield. And fourthly, that some of the foreign legion will be surplus to requirements.
Seventeen places sounds a lot. In practice, it may not be. Torres and Mascherano, assuming Barcelona do not lure the latter to Spain, are automatic choices, as are Dirk Kuyt and Jose Reina. It is hard to imagine that any of Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Fabio Aurelio, Lucas Leiva, Alberto Aquilani, Albert Riera or Yossi Benayoun will be omitted, assuming all remain at the club. Sotirios Kyrgiakos is the back up at centre-back - and given Agger's unfortunate record with injuries, a much-needed one - while Ryan Babel's considerable potential would presumably result in his inclusion. And that makes 13.
In other words, Benitez only has four slots available, even before his spends next summer. With no limit on players who meet FIFA's definition of being Under-21 footballers (which can involve some who have celebrated a 21st birthday), the next generation provides options. Emiliano Insua, signed at 18, should qualify as home-grown from 2011; before then, he will count as an Under-21 player. David Ngog, recruited at 19, will not, though the striker will only be deemed a foreigner in two years' time. Mikel San Jose, Daniel Sanchez Ayala, Daniel Pacheco and Krisztian Nemeth will all be eligible.
But that still leaves Andrea Dossena, Philipp Degen, Damien Plessis, Diego Cavalieri, Charles Itandje, Nabil El Zhar and the aforementioned Voronin competing for a maximum of four spots. Given a record of recruiting from abroad, it may be more realistic to say that no more than two could have a future on Merseyside.
Liverpool supporters may welcome that: none have exactly excelled in the first team yet and it may cleanse Anfield of some of the mediocrity. But a need to dispose of players who would be ineligible to play is hardly likely to help them generate the best return financially. And if there are no takers, the worst-case scenario is that they remain, unable to play but draining the wage bill and depreciating in value.
Equally, English players' value could rise artificially when Liverpool's interest becomes apparent. As Johnson cost £17 million, it is already high enough. Even before the Premier League quota was announced, part of his appeal - like Gareth Barry's when he figured on Benitez's shopping list - was his nationality.
But as it stands, the quota system, like the boardroom machinations, like the lack of funds and like Xabi Alonso's wish to join Real Madrid, amounts to another obstacle in Benitez's planning. It is no surprise that the Liverpool manager was among the most vocal in his opposition to the idea.
Now it is a fact. It may prove a very good time to be a second-string goalkeeper with a grounding in English football, especially given Reina's excellent fitness record. Strikers and full backs who qualify as home-grown may be similarly fortunate. Their foreign counterparts on the fringes of the squad, however, have cause for concern. As he so often does, Benitez faces some awkward decisions. And these cannot be resolved by turning to Spain or, in Voronin's case, Ukraine.