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Life after Xabi Alonso: How Liverpool can fill Spaniard's void

Life after Xabi Alonso: How Liverpool can fill Spaniard's void
Switch over: With Xabi Alonso bound for Real, Wesley Sneijder would be perfect replacement for Spaniard Photo: REUTERS

First, denial that he would want to leave for European football’s great circus. Then anger, at the Spanish club’s endless Marca-driven pursuit. Followed by bargaining, perhaps considering the players they may receive in exchange. That, in turn, is replaced by depression, the thought that losing their Basque heartbeat may cost Rafa Benitez’s side a shot at the title. Now, acceptance. Anfield knows Alonso wants to leave, and he has told his manager as much. It is only a matter of time.

They have come to terms with their grief. The only question that remains is how Liverpool can move on.

Benitez’s first act must be to secure the future of Javier Mascherano. The Argentinean international captain is, perhaps understandably, tempted by Barcelona, but there is a growing acceptance among his advisers that Liverpool will not part with both of their first-choice central midfielders, and it is thought Alonso’s persistence in outlining his desire to leave has made him the more likely to be sold.

Mascherano is still only 25, with at least six years of top-level football ahead of him. Liverpool would, in all probability, have to offer him a new, improved deal to persuade him to resist the lure of playing alongside his close friend Lionel Messi at Camp Nou, for the time being at least. It is not an ideal solution for a player who wishes to leave, but Benitez simply cannot countenance losing both of his central midfielders.

The greater task, though, will be replacing Alonso, Liverpool’s creative fulcrum for half a decade, adored by the Kop for his metronomic presence deep in midfield and the man who sets Liverpool’s tempo. Last season, when Alonso played badly, so did Liverpool. The worry is what happens if he does not play at all. Alternatives of his calibre are not plentiful, and, indeed, it may seem easier for Benitez to tweak his system than to attempt to plug such a gaping hole.

That could mean withdrawing Steven Gerrard into a central midfield role and bringing in an attacking midfielder – most likely Valencia’s David Silva – or a striker to slot in behind or alongside Fernando Torres, but that seems unlikely. Liverpool possess the best strike partnership in the Premier League, and breaking it up would only double Benitez’s worries.

Instead, he may seek to add an extra attacking dimension from deep. Alonso and Mascherano worked perfectly together as the former thought and the latter acted, one orchestrating, the other hunting. Their weakness, though, was goals. Alonso scored three last season – two penalties, one free kick – and Mascherano none. A goalscoring midfielder may have won Liverpool the title.

Since he will not find such a perfect foil for Mascherano – the only available option to match Alonso’s passing, crazy as it sounds, is David Beckham – he may choose to change the nature of Liverpool’s midfield, adding more cutting edge by employing Mascherano to hold and deploying Alonso’s replacement further forward.

The names mentioned so far in dispatches indicate that may be the case. Javi Martinez, of Athletic Bilbao, is a traditional box-to-box midfielder, but he remains raw. Esteban Cambiasso, of Inter Milan, would be another to add more energy to Liverpool’s play, though the best option – ruled out thus far by Benitez – would be Real Madrid’s excellent Wesley Sneijder.

The likes of Joao Moutinho, at Sporting Lisbon, and Raul Meireles, of FC Porto, would seem to fit the bill, although there is no reason to believe Benitez has considered them. Mathieu Flamini, at AC Milan, would add steel, if not creativity, to a tenacious midfield. Mark Noble is the best English option, Roma’s Alberto Aquilani and Udinese’s Gaetano D’Agostino the best Italy can offer. Marek Hamsik, at Napoli, is highly rated and plays for a club who could do with the funds.

A talented bunch, but none, of course, can match the emotional tie Liverpool fans have to Alonso. The Kop, though, will come to accept them, in time. If Benitez can produce the right replacement, stage six may yet be excitement.


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