Mind Games, Rivalries and… Intimidation?

Rafa feeling the pressure?

Rafa feeling the pressure?

With Rafa Benitez’ recent eruption aimed at Sir Alex Ferguson and the Man Utd supremo’s suggestions that Liverpool do not have the nerve to put up a realistic title challenge, the traditional Premier League mind games have begun in earnest. Or at least, they have really begun now. Because Ferguson, the Premiership’s ‘mind-games maestro’  actually got started much earlier than usual this season, when he cast doubt over Manchester City’s new found wealth allowing them to become a threat to United.

I wrote about those particular comments back when they were made back at the end of November, but I reckon that there is a key difference between Fergie’s last mind games comments and his latest ones. See, as i concluded back in November, I think Ferguson was recognising City’s potential to become a threat to United with time, so his cynical comments weren’t entirely truthful. However this time, Ferguson genuinely believes that Liverpool don’t have what it takes to clinch the Premier League title.

Usually, when Ferguson does resort to his mind games, it is usually because he is worried about the club he is attempting to sabotage. If anything, to have Ferguson have a pop at you is usually a sign of respect, it can be taken as recognition that Ferguson sees you as a genuine threat. However this time, I don’t think that is the case, and so I don’t think Ferguson’s comments actually are mind games. If anything, Ferguson was just asked a question, to which he gave a truthful answer.

And I have to say, I agree with the guy. In my honest opinion (even taking aside my feelings towards Liverpool as an Evertonian) Liverpool do not have what it takes to sustain their title challenge. Benitez has shown with his explosion that he is already feeling a little tense, and with his numerous trips to the hospital to deal with a series of Kidney Stones, the pressure of the title race is clearly affecting his health.

For another thing, Liverpool’s display against Everton on monday night was quite revealing. Though they played OK at times, they were for the most part outplayed and outfought by the Toffees. Yet this was a team that were not only playing against their cross-city rivals, they were also a team who had the chance to leapfrog their other biggest rivals at the top of the table. They should have been well up for it, intensely driven to get the three points in the bag, desperate to get one over on both rivals.

Instead, they delivered a fairly tame performance. Apart from Martin Skrtel’s bemusing flare up when Cahill beat him to a ball with a bit of strength in the corner, they barely got worked up at all. Even Jamie Carragher resisted the urge to attempt to assassinate a couple of Everton’s players as he usually does. In fact, the only player who showed any real fight was Steven Gerrard, and guess who got their goal? Now Liverpool need to be able to fight for games, they need to be ready to put everything on the line and give their all for three points week in week out. That they cannot do that suggests to me that they don’t have the mentality to win a league title.

Some people might say that with players like Gerrard and Torres, they have enough quality to win the league without having to need such fight. Indeed, that can often seem like a good argument, especially considering it includes the words ‘Steven’ and ‘Gerrard’ consecutively. The fact is that Gerrard has carried Liverpool for a long time now. Yes, they have other good players, but just think back, and remember just how many important goals he has scored for them. There are loads. And when I say important, I mean important. He seems to only score match winners. If you take away Gerrard’s goals from Liverpool’s last few seasons, they achieve far less.

So that’s an OK argument – in Gerrard and Torres, they do have players who will win them games. But how long will they continue to have them for? Gerrard has a very big hearing coming up which could even see him end up in prison, and deservedly so if the allegations against him are true. And Torres, well, Torres is becoming increasingly injury prone. It’s a shame for the player, because he could be the best in the world, but as an Evertonian, it’s a bit of a godsend, because if the two of them were to play regularly, Liverpool might have a shot at the title.

As it is though, it looks plausible that they might lose their match winners for important chunks of the season. And even if they don’t, the sort of luck that they are used to must surely run out at some point. Somehow when they’re struggling, the ball always manages to drop to ‘Stevie G Laa’ on the edge of the box. Lady Luck certainly seems to be on their side (when she’s not attending to Aston Villa of course), but sometime, she must by the law of averages, change allegiances.

Overall then, I think that Ferguson doesn’t seem to be too far off the mark with his comments about Benitez, and I genuinely think he 100% means what he said. In that sense, their classification as mind games could be in question, but the thing is, they are certainly playing on Rafa’s mind. Ferguson really does seem to have the whole mind games business sorted.

Back in November, Ferguson said something that he didn’t mean to unsettle his cross-City rivals, and it worked. Now in January, Ferguson has said something he does mean, knowing that it will unsettle his Championship rivals, and it seems to be working. I think the bottom line with this though, is that Rafa has let Ferguson get to him. In reacting to Ferguson’s words so negatively, he has simply proved him right. In short, Liverpool’s lacklustre derby display was seemingly an accurate portrayal of both the current mood in Liverpool’s camp, as well as the probable tone of the rest of Liverpool’s season: underwhelming disappointment.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out my previous one on Alex Ferguson’s mind games – I think it’s better: Mind Games, Rivalries and… Respect?

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