Kenny Dalglish has offered a coded message to his players that starting places in next weekend's Carling Cup final are on the line, as his Liverpool side head into tomorrow's FA Cup fifth-round fixture with Brighton & Hove Albion.
"If someone plays well against Brighton it gives you a problem for the team the following week," Dalglish said. "I've not got any idea what my team will be for then. I would imagine everyone will be [fighting for a place at Wembley]. We've not got any great injury problems and everyone is vying to play. The most important thing for us is the strength of the squad we have and then it's a problem for us – or myself – to pick a team."
Maxi Rodriguez comes back into contention, having recovered from a foot injury and not featured since the fourth-round win over Manchester United three weeks ago, though the player who may have the toughest job convincing Dalglish he is the man to face Cardiff City may be Stewart Downing. His disappointing display at Old Trafford last Saturday made Dalglish's omission of Craig Bellamy all the more puzzling and Bellamy will desperately want to face his old club as Liverpool seek their first Wembley silverware in 16 years. "They should just relax and play," Dalglish said of his players.
Dalglish was unwilling to add any public comment to the statement he made on Sunday in which he apologised for his conduct following Luis Suarez's failure to shake Patrice Evra's hand at Old Trafford. A statement Suarez issued and tweeted on Thursday evening, thanking fans of his former club Ajax for their support of him, was immediately withdrawn.
The youth worker and former Liverpool FC scout Earl Jenkins has provided one of the most illuminating insights into the effects of the Suarez/Evra controversy, detailing in the latest Anfield Wrap podcast how it has provided an excuse for public racism among a small minority of bigots – the latest episode occurring as recently as two weeks ago.
"Racists have [suddenly] felt comfortable saying [things] they didn't before," he said. Mr Jenkins, who works with one of Liverpool's most culturally diverse clubs, Kingsley United, in Toxteth, said he was "absolutely fuming" that Suarez had not accepted Evra's hand. "We can debate till kingdom come whether [Suarez] meant [the word "negro"] in a bad way but the perception for the rest of the country [is that he did]. [A handshake] would have shown everyone that what he did was a mistake," Mr Jenkins said.
"I don't think he is racist. I think he said something racist – not in a bantering way, but in the heat of the game. By not clawing that situation back quite quickly by apologising on the pitch he [has let] people take over from him and stop that happening. This was handled so badly. If you are a young person watching that game you are very influenced [by Suarez refusing to shake]. I see it every week. If a player does something on Saturday you can guarantee one of my kids is going to try it on a Sunday."
Mr Jenkins said the atmosphere engendered by the controversy had made one of his own nephews, a Liverpool supporter, uncomfortable about attending matches. "That's the point you miss," he said. "To sit there aged 11 feeling uncomfortable in your own skin – that shouldn't happen."
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