x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Rafa's growing Spains

A reliance on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard has been highlighted this summer.

Benitez is fighting to keep hold of Xabi Alonso.
Benitez is fighting to keep hold of Xabi Alonso.

Spain is a fitting venue for Liverpool today. While it has taken until August to encounter a Primera Liga side on the pitch - in this case Espanyol - Rafa Benitez has been scuffling with Spanish opposition all summer. He has conceded defeat in the quest to keep Alvaro Arbeloa, perhaps a case of losing the battle in a bid to win the war with Real Madrid. He has been unable, too, to recruit David Silva, the Valencia winger who has long been a target, but whose price has been elevated as Real distort the transfer market. And, most seriously, his midfield axis is under threat after a pincer movement from the Liverpool manager's homeland.

Javier Mascherano's stay in the city of Barcelona may not extend beyond a pre-season friendly, but the European champions hoped to lure him there for longer; Xabi Alonso's exit to Real is more likely after the Basque submitted a transfer request. Anfield should not be a finishing school for La Liga's dominant duo, but Spanish affluence, coupled with Liverpool's debts, has rendered that a possibility. Under the circumstances, Albert Riera's return to his former club tonight has been rather overshadowed.

In Liverpool, though by no means exclusively for them, 2009 has been a summer of frustration. The sole addition to date is Glen Johnson, whose arrival preceded Steven Gerrard's court case, Tom Hicks's and George Gillett's refinancing deal and repeated attempts to entice Alonso away from Anfield. The consolation is that the most valuable of the Spanish contingent has reaffirmed his allegiances. "I have never thought about leaving the club," Fernando Torres said. "My team in Spain is Atletico Madrid and my team in England is Liverpool."

The loyalist in the camp has also pronounced himself unworried by the impasse in the transfer market. "I don't think we need to sign any other players. We have already bought good players such as Glen Johnson," he added. It was, incidentally, a typically quixotic choice from Benitez that, having made the £17million (Dh104m) right-back the most expensive defender in Liverpool's history, Johnson debuted on the left flank.

Pre-season can lend an unfamiliar look to many teams, but there could be something reassuringly familiar tonight when, for the first time since May, the most feared attacking alliance in England could be reunited. Torres figured in Thailand and Singapore at a time when his captain was detained at Liverpool crown court. "Gerrard is the best player in the world," said the striker. The captain's acquittal on an affray charge has represented the best piece of news for Benitez this summer.

The friendlies have already illustrated the reliance upon a select group. Liverpool only found fluency in the second half of the 5-0 win against Singapore when Torres's sharpness was allied with Alonso's distribution, possibly in a valedictory performance, and the balance lent by Dirk Kuyt and Riera. Krisztian Nemeth scored twice then and, without further additions, the youthful members of Liverpool's squad have figured prominently thus far.

Emiliano Insua may be the first-choice left-back, especially in the absence of the injured Fabio Aurelio, but the roles of Nemeth, David N'Gog, Damien Plessis, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly can be disputed: are they emerging talents, or proof of a lack of strength in depth while Benitez struggles to sign? In the past, Benitez has looked to his native land for recruits, for ideas and for inspiration. His team have been branded a Spanish side in England. Now, when the contingent of the manager's compatriots diminishes with every sale, the Anglo-Spanish alignment in attack may have to epitomise the new Liverpool.

rjolly@thenational.ae