Why Masch, not Torres, is the real Rafa masterstroke
Not often does the person sitting at home see more than the spectator in the stadium, but it happened on Saturday when Liverpool beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, writes Richard Williams.
A couple of minutes before the kick-off, while the television camera was lingering on the teams lining up in the tunnel, something happened that gave a fascinating portent of the upset to come.
We had just learnt that Alvaro Arbeloa, the Liverpool right-back, had tweaked a hamstring during the warm-up and would not be playing. Rafael Benítez had reconfigured his defence, moving Jamie Carragher from centre-back to fill Arbeloa's position and bringing in Sami Hyypia alongside Martin Skrtel. In the light of the lengthy preparations that would have gone into a fixture of this magnitude – not the match of the season, perhaps, but a very important one to both sides – this represented a serious adjustment.
What the roving camera in the Old Trafford tunnel showed was a little huddle at the rear of the Liverpool line. At the centre of a group of defenders Javier Mascherano was delivering an impassioned speech, complete with heated gesticulations. It was the sort of thing one might have expected to see from Steven Gerrard, the team captain, or from the vastly experienced Hyypia, his predecessor. Two hours later, however, Mascherano had given a display confirming my belief that he rivals Claude Makelele as the best exponent in modern British football of an art to which, even now, too little importance is attached.
Gerrard and Fernando Torres, who ran the United defence ragged and scored a goal apiece, won the battle of the headlines. But it was Mascherano who carved out the space and time in which they could play, as he had done the previous Tuesday night when Liverpool produced the second of their great performances of the season in routing Real Madrid. The first of those great performances came at Stamford Bridge in October, when Liverpool's midfield squeezed the life out of Chelsea and ended the west London club's run of 86 home league matches without defeat. The third came, of course, on Saturday – when, significantly, United took the field without an equivalent player. Mascherano's excellence was a thread running through all three games.
I first saw him in 2004, when he was 20 years old and winning an Olympic gold medal with an Argentina squad including Carlos Tevez and Gabriel Heinze. No one in Britain pays much attention to the Olympic football tournament, for the simple and patently inadequate reason that there are no British representatives. Other nations, however, take it extremely seriously, making it a good opportunity to see young talent on the way up. In Athens, Mascherano, who had made his senior debut for River Plate less than a year earlier, sat in front of the defence and controlled the traffic with a calmness and technical excellence reminiscent of Barcelona's Pep Guardiola.
Four years later in Beijing he was doing much the same thing, this time as an over-age player in a squad including Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero. The impression was the same, and so was the result: another gold medal for a man who by this time had moved from River Plate to Corinthians in Brazil and thence to England, first to West Ham – where Alan Pardew saw fit to give him only seven appearances in half a season – before finding a home at Anfield.
Most people would probably claim that Torres is the best of Benítez's many expensive acquisitions, and the coltish striker is undoubtedly a wonderfully compelling performer who adds a sense of possibility to any match in which he takes part. But my choice would be Mascherano, a player who rose above a set of tangled transfer dealings and above the inability of his first English club to understand exactly what it is that he adds to a team. Benítez could see what Pardew failed to spot, and spent £18m on a player whose contribution is proving to be priceless.
In the absence of Xabi Alonso, his usual partner at the base of midfield, Mascherano's tackles, his interceptions and his distribution laid the solid foundation for Saturday's tumultuous victory. His competitiveness and his footballing intelligence were on full view as he fetched and harried with marvellous humility and unfailing relevance. Nobody writes poems about such players, but they should.
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