Andrew Tuft's Monday column - Liverpool's Little Chief has a big role to play
As Steven Gerrard received plaudits for making his 500th Liverpool appearance against Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, one of his midfield colleagues quietly went about his usual business. Javier Mascherano is not one to take the spotlight, but his presence in the Reds? engine room is just as vital as that of his skipper. And confirmation the man known in Argentina as El Jefecito, the Little Chief, is discussing extending his stay at Anfield, might be the best news Liverpool fans get all season.
Speaking to lfc.tv, Rafa Benitez said: ?He has two more years on his contract, we were talking before and we will sit down sooner rather than later and talk about the future. The last conversations that we had were very positive." Mascherano has been linked with moves away from Merseyside'since the summer, but the revelation of talks between Liverpool and their No.20 is encouraging, for if Gerrard is the heartbeat of Liverpool?s team, then Mascherano is the legs.
The combative Argentine is the player who makes Liverpool strong. Together with local boys Gerrard and Jamie Carragher and Spanish imports Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina, Mascherano forms part of the spine of Benitez's team. Liverpool's backbone is as strong as that of any team in the country, but Mascherano's role has grown in importance since the departure of Xabi Alonso. Previously, Alonso was the starting point of most of Liverpool's forward surges - Reina, perhaps the best distributor of any goalkeeper in the Premier League, would pick out Alonso with a bowled throw or a pass that displayed technique rarely seen in a goalkeeper. But since Alonso departed for Real Madrid, Mascherano has taken on more creative responsibility.
With the cultured Alonso being replaced by the more destructive Lucas, and Alberto Aquilani still not deemed ready for first team action, Mascherano has had the opportunity to showcase attributes that rarely got an airing with Alonso in the side. While he does not quite possess the vision of his former teammate, Mascherano's technical ability is vastly underrated. He is just as capable of switching play with a cross-field ball as his more expressive associates, and is now often the man Reina looks to supply when Liverpool want to turn defence into attack at speed. Mascherano will drop deep to take the ball from his goalkeeper, and then turn and begin Liverpool's next foray.
That is similar to how Claude Makelele operated under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea - the diminutive Frenchman always made himself available for a pass, as well as excelling in his defensive duties. After seeing his Fulham side beat Makelele's Chelsea 1-0 in March 2006, Chris Coleman revealed the reason for victory was because Fulham snuffed out the ex-Real Madrid player. Coleman said: "Everytime we play against Chelsea or everytime we watch them play, everything goes through Makelele and he starts the attacks." Mascherano has taken on that role at Liverpool, but is a more complete player than Makelele ever was. Gerrard would excel in that position, but dropping the England midfielder into the deep-lying midfield spot would require a major tactical rethink from Benitez, one that seems unlikely to come. Aquilani may be the man to relieve Mascherano of his duties but only Benitez knows when the Italian will be ready to start a game in the red shirt.
When Aquilani is ready for Liverpool, Mascherano will probably return to a simpler, more destructive role, displacing Lucas from the side. But having such a talented player acting as your side's midfield destroyer is highly beneficial. By being a well-rounded part of Benitez's side, Mascherano offers more than the average anchor man. One of the less highlighted but vastly important pieces of the anchor man's game is keeping the pressure on an opposition that is under the cosh. As defenders struggle to get the ball away, scrambling half-clearances to no one in particular, the defensive midfielder can aide his attacking colleagues by gobbling up the ball and sending it forward again. Mascherano does this excellently. He has the athleticism to get to the ball and the skill to play the right pass. Michael Essien is often lauded as the best all-round midfielder in the league but Mascherano is not far behind.
Mascherano's all-round qualities are what make him such an attractive target to the giants of Europe, especially Barcelona. With the delights of Xavi and Andres Iniesta supplying Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, someone needs to do the dirty work. But they also need to suit Barca's style of play - one or two touch passes and clever movement at a high tempo. It is a style that requires imperious technique, while the midfielder asked to guard his impish teammates has to possess lung-bursting stamina, immense concentration and a machine-like ability to read the play and anticipate where he will be needed next, not to mention crunching tackling ability. Mascherano clearly fits the bill. The list of players who could improve Pep Guardiola's side is a short one, but Mascherano is definitely on it. Another known admirer is Real Madrid's director general Jorge Valdano. The former Argentina forward told the BBC last year: "Mascherano is, possibly, the best central midfielder in the world. With him on the pitch a coach can sleep easily." What price Mascherano joining Alonso in the Spanish capital one day?
Benitez, however, has stressed Mascherano is not for sale. The Spaniard told the BBC: "Clubs can forget about bidding for him - he has no price and he's happy here." But just a few months ago, the Argentina captain's agent said his client would be "very proud" to play for Barcelona, and that such a transfer was "feasible", but the announcement of contract negotiations should put paid to those whispers for the time being. However, should Argentina reach the latter stages of next year?s World Cup, the interest in Mascherano is sure to increase. The South Americans were handed what should be a straight-forward draw last week, joining Greece, Nigeria and South Korea in Group B and if Mascherano can lead Diego Maradona's team into the business end of the tournament, his European suitors are likely to come calling again, new contract be damned.