GARY LINEKER: Gareth Barry is who Rafa needs now more than ever

24 October 2009 09:23
We will never know if Rafa Benitez's famous outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson affected the outcome of last season's title race but it is a 'fact' that Liverpool have been in a downward spiral ever since.

If the slump continues against Manchester United today, another distressing 'fact' may emerge. Gareth Barry - the one who got away - could play in the Champions League with Manchester City at Rafa's expense.

The one that got away: Gareth Barry would surely have chosen Liverpool if offered the right deal

The champions arrive at Anfield at a bad time for Benitez, under pressure after six defeats already this season.

Things haven't been the same since the so-called Rafa rant in January, after which Liverpool failed to win any of their next four games.

By the time they rallied to beat United 4-1 at Old Trafford, it was too late for the title and this season has seen more backward steps.

I know the modern-day manager doesn't publicly admit mistakes but Benitez must regret letting Barry walk straight into City's arms this summer after chasing him so enthusiastically the previous year.

Barry is just what Liverpool need right now and it must be galling for Benitez that he'll be in Mark Hughes's team today and not his.

It puzzles me why Barry did not end up at Anfield and I can only assume Benitez had the finances to sign either Glen Johnson or Barry and chose the wrong option.

That is not a slur on Johnson, an extremely good full-back, but a realistic appraisal is that Barry's position is far more influential on the pitch.

In 2008, Benitez could not have made it clearer how much he wanted Barry. He even fell out badly with chief executive Rick Parry after being refused the £18million to buy him.

Yet in the last transfer window, and with Xabi Alonso clearly wanting to go to Real Madrid, Benitez chose to spend a fortune on Johnson and let Barry - who was in the final year of his contract and far cheaper - go to City, the club threatening Liverpool's top-four status.

If Barry had been given a straight choice between Liverpool and City, I'm sure he would have signed for Benitez because of the Champions League factor. But he doesn't seem to have been given that choice.

Wrong choice: Liverpool may well have picked Glen Johnson (right) instead of Gareth Barry

Johnson has many qualities and could end up as good as Ashley Cole but he is still a full-back, after all.

And if you are not strong in central midfield - and Liverpool aren't - you've got no chance. It is the heartbeat of your team.

Instead of Barry - a really good player who never gives the ball away, gets up and down the pitch and can hit a damage pass - Liverpool have Lucas, a player nobody gets.

As a result, the big question is not whether Liverpool can win the title but whether they can hold on to a Champions League spot. That is no formality, as Manchester City have a formidable squad and can spend more in January for a final push.

Liverpool struggling for points while United grind out results in Ronaldo's absenceAll the problems at Liverpool, and the fact that neither Chelsea nor Arsenal look stronger than last season, have been an unexpected bonus to United, who started the weekend on top of the Premier League despite losing at Burnley and needing late goals to save them against City and Sunderland.

United have missed Cristiano Ronaldo but have coped far better than Liverpool without Alonso.

Coping - just about: United have not been the same force without Ronaldo, but are picking up points nonetheless

The difference between Ferguson's team and the competition is that without key men, they still have an all-round strength which means they can win without playing at their best.

United will consider this a great time to play Liverpool. They say you should beware a wounded animal but Liverpool's confidence will be low after four straight defeats.

There is added spice to the fixture, too, with United knowing that after equalling Liverpool's record of 18 league titles last season, they can now overhaul it, a definite possibility as it will be extremely close between them and Chelsea.

If United do come out on top in May, there will be talk of Sir Alex calling it a day with history made but I can't see it. I don't think he fancies life without leading Manchester United.

He is clearly still driven and I wouldn't be surprised to see him still in charge, aged 93 on a Zimmer frame. The outburst against Alan Wiley - ill-advised and unfair - was also quite telling about how being the United boss still gets the blood pumping through Fergie's veins.

I've seen his fierce temper and the fact he still has it suggests he has the desire to carry on for a good while yet. Although Wiley was the target, the United players will have been sent a message, too.

Even now, the biggest United superstar won't want to face Ferguson at half-time if they haven't done their job properly. The mixture of fear and respect Fergie still generates has been a major secret of his success.

It will take one huge performance from Liverpool with all their problems to deny him today.

England 2018 World Cup bid: We can be world wondersIt is an honour to be invited to be an ambassador for England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

There is nobody more keen to see the tournament here for the first time since 1966.

I've already done a couple of things to help the bid but I should stress I have not been asked to be the big Lord Coe figurehead.

I am just one of several bid ambassadors who will help in any way. For example, I've just narrated a promotional film.

That suits me fine. I am not by nature a political animal and remain committed to my 'day job' at the BBC, but I'll always lend my support for 2018 in any way I can.

Having played at two World Cups and for club sides in Spain and Japan, I am aware of the importance of the World Cup and believe England would do a wonderful job in putting on the greatest spectacle in sport.

Keeping faith in England: Lighter ball causing problems for Euro keepersAnyone watching the Champions League last week will feel slightly less anxious about England's goalkeeping problems ahead of the World Cup.

Howlers: Real's Iker Casillas looked far from solid during his side's midweek clash with AC Milan

It seems that it's not just us having problems in that position. The Real Madrid-AC Milan game was full of comedy moments from Iker Casillas and Dida.

Casillas, regarded as one of the best in the world, was virtually throwing them in. I watched the game with former England keeper Ray Clemence, now head of development at the Football Association.

His belief is that over the years, the ball has got consistently lighter and moved around more. Now it's at a stage where goalkeepers don't even try to catch it, they would rather parry it away.

There is a lot of merit in that argument and that's why I am sure it won't just be England who are worried about their keepers. I think the job itself has become a lotmore difficult.

You couldn't have predicted home defeats for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Liverpool inthe latest series of group games but I still believe the fancied teams will get through.

Besides Liverpool, the side who might be worried are Inter Milan. The Italian champions have drawn all three group games so far to indicate Serie A is not as strong as it used to be.

Real Madrid are what we suspected, good going forward, fragile at the back. Even with Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, they won't be able to get away with that in the latter stages, so I stick to my view that only Barcelona can realistically stop an English side winning the Champions League this season.

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 Explore more:People:Ashley Cole, Xabi Alonso, Glen Johnson, Rafa Benitez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rick Parry, MARK HUGHES, Gary Lineker, Alex Ferguson, Gareth BarryPlaces:Barcelona, Liverpool, Spain, Japan, United KingdomOrganisations:Football Association

Source: Daily_Mail