Labels can stick. Ronnie Rosenthal scored seven goals in his first eight games for Liverpool at the tail end of 1989/90 league season, strikes that effectively ensured that the Reds would see off the challenge of Aston Villa and claim their 18th league championship, but he’ll always be that bloke who rounded the keeper at Villa Park and – when faced with the proverbial ‘my nan would score that’ opportunity – promptly hit the crossbar. The next Israeli to play for Liverpool has been similarly pigeon-holed. Yossi Benayoun has seemingly forever been one of those most faintly praised of footballers, the ‘good squad player.’ Not quite good enough to be considered an automatic first-team starter, but not bad enough to be vehemently berated from the terraces every other week, the ‘good squad player’ lives in a land of limbo. Hero status one week can easily be followed by howls of derision the next. We all want our club’s ‘good squad players’ to be better, but by doing so they graduate to an automatic first team starter, thereby creating positions for more ‘good squad players’ to emerge and so the cycle begins again.
Benayoun has been Liverpool’s best player of 2009. A headed winner in the Bernabeu last season – one of the great British away victories in recent Champions League history; largely forgotten due to the Reds’ overpowering of Real Madrid in the second leg – kicked off a spell of blistering form that aided Liverpool’s push for the Premier League title. His last minute winner at Fulham in April – at a time when Manchester United were wobbling at the top of the table – was one of the greatest statements of intent from a Liverpool side in years and forced United to respond like the champions they are.
Last Wednesday Benayoun captained Israel to a 7-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Luxembourg in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv. Three days and two gruelling flights later he was scoring a hat-trick as Liverpool swatted aside a Burnley team who were admirably competitive, but ultimately lacking in the quality required to hurt the Reds. This was Benayoun’s third treble for Liverpool inside two years, Turkish Champions League whipping boys Besiktas felt his wrath in a record 8-0 victory in November 2007, while plucky Havant & Waterlooville’s FA Cup dreams were dashed by the little Israeli two months later. He could have had five on Saturday; a second half effort was ruled marginally offside, while it was his effort that Brian Jensen palmed out before Dirk Kuyt doubled Liverpool’s lead late in the first half.
Last season Fernando Torres went on record to claim that Benayoun is amongst the best players he’s ever lined up alongside. Torres cited the midfielder’s creativity and ability to perform in a number of positions as qualities that mark him out as a top performer. The star striker even gave his manager some tips when it came to Benayoun, claiming that: “I’ve told Rafa that if it was up to me then Yossi would play all the time.” It seems as though Benitez was listening.
For so long Liverpool were dismissed as just the two-man team of Torres and Steven Gerrard. Last season – a campaign where Benayoun and/or Kuyt were directly involved in either scoring or creating over a third of their goals – should have been the death knell for that particular theory, but there is still a feeling that the Israeli – and Kuyt for that matter – doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Much of the summer was spent in the hope that Spanish pocket dynamo David Silva could be snared from Valencia in a multi-million pound deal, with presumably Benayoun suffering from the addition of a player whose price tag alone would demand a starting berth. As fans looked elsewhere for match-winning talents who could unlock defences, many were overlooking the fact that they already had one.
Benayoun has an excellent footballing brain, not the quickest, he can drift into spaces and create opportunities with the drop of a shoulder. The 29-year-old has already talked of his desire to manage his country upon retirement, and it is not difficult to imagine an attacking coach who’d give his players the freedom to express themselves and a stage upon which to display their skills. Those days are a long way off though, just as those withering descriptions of Benayoun as merely a ‘good squad player’ should be too. The midfielder is much more than that, and his new label – that of a vital and integral part of his team’s plans – looks like sticking to him for some time yet.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25
It gets no easier – August 27
Smells like team spirit – September 1
Babel crows for return to homeland – September 4
Into the Twilight Zone – September 8
Settling the score – September 11
Benayoun defies hs critics – September 15