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BIRMINGHAM, England – At last, it seems that Liverpool, after so many years of talking the talk – on the basis of their tradition and huge fan base – will actually be able to walk the walk, too. The mighty Reds are sitting proudly at the top of the EPL for the first time in five years. Yes, five years. That is far too long for a club of their immense stature.
And let's not forget too that, but for an inexcusable decision by blundering referee Rob Styles who gifted Chelsea a game-tying penalty at Anfield last month, Liverpool would be 4-0 in the league with a perfect 12 points.
So why is that great news for the neutrals?
Because English football needs Rafa Benitez and it needs a strong Liverpool to avoid the relative tedium of another two-horse battle between Chelsea and Manchester United this season.
We are fed up with Sir Alex Ferguson and maxed-out on Jose Mourinho. Arsene Wenger? The admirable Frenchman is just a little too … boring. More to the point, he does not have a team capable of mounting a serious challenge. At least not until his players start to shave.
A couple of years ago, Mourinho arrived with a big reputation and an even bigger ego to revitalize our game, breaking the domination of United and Arsenal thanks to the rubles of Roman Abramovic. For a while, we loved Jose. The male football fan admired his self-confidence; female fans could not fail to notice his Latin good looks.
Unfortunately, self-confidence has a nasty habit of eventually giving way to arrogance.
Anointing himself "The Chosen One" was interpreted as partly tongue-in-cheek, but as time wore on, more people were simply turned off by Jose's boundless self-assurance. The average EPL fan has now tired of his arrogance.
The anti-Mourinho movement, also drawing ammunition from the fact his owner spent over 130 million pounds in the transfer market, was so strong by the turn of this year that the vast majority of neutrals wanted Manchester United to win the 2007 title. How crazy is that?
Which is why Benitez is such a savior. Obviously, he owes a huge debt of gratitude to the bank roll of U.S. billionaires George Gillett and Tom Hicks at Anfield, for digging deep to the tune of over 45 million pounds this summer, especially for the funds to sign Fernando Torres.
In the fresh-faced Spanish superstar, arguably the most exciting player to arrive on English shores this summer, Liverpool now possesses the one dimension it has been lacking of late – a guaranteed predator with a different style to Ian Rush or Robbie Fowler but the same kind of goal menace.
So all is good with Benitez, right?
Well, not quite.
His new found levels of nationwide bonhomie might not last the season if he persists with the current stance toward Steven Gerrard, his broken toe and England duty. The way Rafa is trying to dictate to national team manager Steve McClaren over the midfield icon's participation in two crucial Euro 2008 qualifiers against Israel and Russia is a dangerous game.
A couple of weeks ago, Gerrard played with an injection in the crucial game against Chelsea as Benitez wanted to make a statement of intent against his rivals. Two weeks later, Benitez rested him for the obviously less taxing game against Derby and quickly asked McClaren not to pump Gerrard full of painkillers at a time when the nation's side is mired in one of its biggest crises for many years.
Imagine Phil Jackson adopting that approach by telling a slumping and injury-plagued Team USA that Kobe Bryant was not fit enough to play in the FIBA Americas Championships while participating in summer league for the Lakers.
Gerrard would want to play for Liverpool with a broken ankle, and his thoughts on representing his country are exactly the same, perhaps even stronger.
"Steve wants to play, I want him to play and his country wants him to play," said McClaren when quizzed earlier this week.
Allow Gerrard to get there against Israel on Saturday, Rafa. England needs Stevie G.
And Benitez trying to deprive long-suffering England fans of their one true world-class player, at a time when David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard are out injured, is a an endgame that will not endear him to the nation. Gerrard is a national treasure, not just your property, Rafa. So tread carefully.
Also make sure this impressive start at Anfield is not another false hope. After the political maneuvering that followed the Champions League final defeat to AC Milan – when you criticized chief executive Rick Parry and the owners for the club's lack of ambition and planning in the transfer market – you were backed to the hilt this summer.
Hicks and Gillett have dug deep, even though they might not have appreciated your attempts to interfere in the way they run one of their many multi-million-pound industries. They might not have enjoyed the way you seemed to play them off against interest in you from Real Madrid to get the money you were crying out for to invest in new players. But they happily paid the checks this summer.
After all, Hicks and Gillett would not be the first members of the English football community to be won over by your disarming demeanor, the common football sense that usually comes out of your mouth and some undeniably impressive accomplishments on the field (two Champions' League finals in three years certainly helps your cause).
But you know the way the deal works, Rafa.
They have kept their part of the bargain. Now it is up to you to keep yours and win that Premiership title for which one of the most famous clubs in the world has been forced to wait over an appalling barren stretch of 17 years. (Just remember that in that time, Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United have won the title while Liverpool have not).
Somehow, judging from the noises that are coming from people close to the American owners, a third-place finish in the Premier League this season might not be the result your ambitious employers expect. And as football has shown us countless times before, dissatisfied owners generally mean only one thing for the manager below them on the food chain.
If that is the best you can do, it won't be good enough for George and Tom. It won't be good enough for Liverpool fans, who are starting to believe it is their time again, and it won't be good enough for us neutrals whom you have seduced up to now.
Ian Edwards, of the Wardle Agency, has covered English football for 18 years.