Saturday, September 19, 2009

Rafa wants more from Masch

Rafael Benítez has told Javier Mascherano he must overcome his problems in Argentina to restore his credentials as a world-class holding midfielder and to receive a new long-term contract from Liverpool.

The 25-year-old is expected to return to the Liverpool side at his former club West Ham United this evening, having missed last weekend's 4-0 defeat of Burnley with a pelvic injury and been among the substitutes in the Champions League victory over Debrecen. For the first time since joining Liverpool on loan in January 2007, Mascherano's status as an automatic choice, or as close to one as Benítez will allow at Anfield, is under threat amid an indifferent start to the season.

Mascherano's dip in form follows a trying summer that involved repeated links with a move to Barcelona – who ultimately made no bid for the midfielder – his wife returning to Argentina to give birth to their second child and, most recently, his national team's alarming results under Diego Maradona.

Benítez admits the prospect of failing to qualify for South Africa 2010 is weighing heavily on the Argentina captain but is adamant Mascherano will recapture the form that persuaded Liverpool to turn his loan deal into a long-term £18m transfer last February. "When you are not winning while playing for a big country like Argentina, you have to be worried," said the Liverpool manager. "But Javier is a player with experience so he will focus his mind and start thinking about Liverpool. He is the captain so he will be really worried because in Argentina, they live and breathe football, so as captain it will be a worry for him."

As for Mascherano's personal difficulties, Benítez stated bluntly: "The main thing for me is that he is a professional. He has been in London and he has been in Liverpool and I think he was very happy in Liverpool, so if we can win some games then I think it will be easier for a professional to be happy."

Barcelona flirted with the prospect of signing Mascherano again this week when the club's technical secretary, Txiki Begiristain, claimed the Liverpool midfielder and Arsenal's Cesc Fábregas both featured on their transfer list for 2010. Despite frequent public pronouncements about Mascherano in the summer, the European champions failed to follow their interest with an official offer to Liverpool and Benítez suspects electioneering at Camp Nou may be behind their latest move.

"The top sides are always interested in top players, this is normal, but he has a contract and we want to keep him," Benítez said. "I told Txiki Begiristain before that we wanted to keep him and he knows my opinion."

Liverpool officials suspected Mascherano's interest in Barcelona this summer was also a means to improving the four-and-a-half year contract he signed at Anfield only last year. And Benítez admits Liverpool will have to see an improvement in the midfielder's form before any contract negotiations begin.

The Liverpool manager added: "He has two more years [after this season] and we would like to keep him. If we need to talk to him we will do it but he has enough time and he has to play at the level that he was before and we will be pleased with him. I had a conversation with him recently about how important it was for him to come here. Now he is the captain of Argentina thanks to Liverpool, that is very important and for us to have the best from Mascherano is really important if we want to win more games."

Benítez insists the Argentinian has responded impressively in training this week and, with Liverpool likely to return to two holding midfielders away from home this evening, insists Mascherano remains a major influence on Anfield fortunes. "He is a key player for us and he will be a key player for us during the season," the Spaniard said. "I think he is working very hard and in one or two games he was playing well but the team was not doing really well in the other two. It's more the team than just one player."

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