Rafa Surprise With El Zhar Choice
Aside from the Barry saga, this was the summer in which the core of Liverpool's successful reserve side got an opportunity to prove their worth at a higher level. Daniel Pacheco, Damien Plessis, Jay Spearing, Kristian Nemeth, Stephen Darby and Emiliano Insua all got to play in the club's pre-season friendlies with each one hinting that, should the need arise, they were more than capable of doing a job.
So, now that real football is underway, has Rafael Benitez turned to any one of them? Well, not really but that's not to say that he hasn't been calling upon a graduate from Gary Ablett's reserves.
Step forward Nabil El Zhar. The Moroccan winger has been a late substitute in each of Liverpool's official games, with his choice confirming the manager's infinite ability to surprise as far as team selection is concerned.
That level of surprise is heightened by El Zhar's rather anonymous Liverpool career so far. Aside from an admittedly fantastic goal against Cardiff in last season's Carling Cup, there's been little to point to him as the centre of so much confidence from Benitez's part. For how else could you define a manager's feelings about a player he brings as his final substitution when the side is losing 1-0 in their first home game of the season?
There certainly wasn't any indication of Benitez's faith during the summer games where El Zhar featured sporadically. And his appreciation of the winger's abilities cannot stem from last year's reserve games as El Zhar was largely a spectator, thanks also to a series of injuriies.
Yet it is to El Zhar that he is turning to in each game. The unavailability of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva may have played a part but even so, El Zhar's role is not one that is replicated by either one of those players: the likelihood is that Benitez would have still made the same choice.
If anything, the only player in Liverpool's squad whose playing style is similar to El Zhar's wasn't even on the bench. Jermaine Pennant's exclusion tantamounts to an admission that the club is looking to move the player on with Benitez unwilling to risk him getting injured and miss out on increasing his spending power through Pennant's sale.
Regardless of whether Pennant's time at Liverpool is judged to be a success or a failure, there's little doubt that his departure would leave a void: he is the only winger on whom Benitez can count. The lack of option out wide has long been an issue and not one that has been answered during the summer.
The problem that this shortcoming is causing was typified by Yossi Benayoun's completely ineffective display on Sunday, a continuation on his games against both Standard Liege and Sunderland. Benayoun is a creative midfielder with the skills to create chances. His best, however, comes when he is able to cut inside and by trying to stay out wide - as he has been asked to so far - he is rendered ineffectual.
It is also the reason why Benitez has been turning to El Zhar. What he lacks in experience and composure, El Zhar makes up for with his instinct to stay as wide as possible which gives Liverpool a different tactical dimension. His speed - a rather surprising asset given his rather bulky framework - is a significant plus point but unlikely to be the one reason helping him get his chance. If experience helps El Zhar improve on his distribution and crossing abilities, because aside from short sideways passes he has shown very little in that respect, then the loss of Pennant will prove to be easily replaceable.
Especially as there are various pointers hinting at El Zhar's talent. This is a player who in the World U20 championships came second in the best player of the tournament voting behind a certain Leo Messi. One who has already played five times for Morocco at senior level and scored twice. A talent on whom Benitez is starting to count with increasing regularity. Surprisingly perhaps, but not unreasonably.
If you want to read similar articles, go to A Liverpool Thing