Kewell the underachiever knows his red-letter day is overdue

It was hardly a startling enough confession to warrant a drum roll - indeed, there are plenty on Merseyside who will tell you it barely merited a ham roll - but at least Harry Kewell's admission that "yes, I have underachieved at Liverpool" proves one thing.

It was hardly a startling enough confession to warrant a drum roll - indeed, there are plenty on Merseyside who will tell you it barely merited a ham roll - but at least Harry Kewell's admission that "yes, I have underachieved at Liverpool" proves one thing. It is that on this, the day he at last gets to show off his undoubted talents in what, bizarrely, is his first professional final, the Australian is feeling well up for it. And after a week when the 26-year-old's much-suspected commitment came under yet more scrutiny, this was no trifling soundbite.

"It is fair to say that Liverpool haven't seen the best of me yet, certainly not," he said as his diamond ring competed with his diamond earring to redirect the fluorescent lighting deep in the bowels of Anfield. "I know what I'm capable of and I'm quite sure that everyone else connected with the club is aware, too. I would just love to go out there and do it, because I know that I can. Why hasn't it happened for me yet? Well, you go to a different team and sometimes it doesn't work out straight away. Saying that, I started off well but then I hit a bit of a down patch."

"Not much Kop" would be the somewhat crueller assessment of the Liverpool faithful, who must have been burying disbelieving heads in shaking hands when, at the beginning of a week that could just frame their entire season, Rafael Benitez felt obliged to announce that he would be the one deciding when his player was fit for duty and not any of Kewell's "advisers", ie his agent, Bernie Mandic, or his national manager, Frank Farina.

"Just a mountain out of a molehill," claimed Kewell, dismissing the affair with a shrug. "Once again, people writing about things they know nothing about. My agent never once got involved, and all Farina said was that if I had surgery now I'd be available for the Confederations Cup. But he also said that I'm a Liverpool player and will do whatever my club most want me to do."

That's simple; surgery can wait. And in the meantime, what his club most want him to do is be the Harry Kewell they signed for £5m in the Elland Road "everything must go" sale 18 months ago. There have been flashes of that supreme left foot since, but that's all there has been, and when you have one of the Premiership's brightest lights in your grasp you expect more than the occasional flash. A persistent Achilles problem, not to mention his latest groin injury, which has kept him out for two months, would make it easy for Kewell to cry "injury" in his own defence, but refreshingly, and some might venture uncharacteristically, he is refusing to do so.

"I'm not blaming the injuries, no. You might be 100 per cent for the first game of the season, but from then on every player is carrying knocks. When you cross the white line you're declaring yourself 100 per cent fit, and although it is really frustrating that you aren't, but all the fans think you are, you've got to give it your best."

Except his manager is not expecting Harry's "A" game, just something approaching it. "We cannot talk about him being 100 per cent because he's been out for a couple of months," said Benitez, joining in on the applied mathematics. "But can he play? Sure, no problem. He played in Tuesday's Champions' League win against Bayer Leverkusen and played well. After all, 80 per cent of Harry Kewell is better than 130 per cent of me."

Such unerring faith is likely to manifest itself today in Kewell's placement on his favoured left wing, with the ever-flexible John Arne Riise being shifted into a defensive role. And with Fernando Morientes "a dream acquisition" in Kewell's eager eyes, you could almost see him drooling over the prospect of crossing that ball in for the towering Spaniard at the Welsh capital's citadel.

"It's a real asset that we've now got a big target man who can outjump a lot of defenders and head the ball," he said. "You can tell how good he is because when there were rumours he was coming here, almost every other club moved in to nab him. But it also shows how good a manager we've got, because to bring in a player of Fernando's quality in mid-season is phenomenal."

Indeed, for a player renowned for warbling the blues, it is surprising to find Kewell so intent on singing the praises of his leader. "If you look at my career you will see that I've had about six managers in the last four years. What I'd obviously like is a bit of stability and to work with the same manager for a while. But this season has been a revelation. Rafa's come in with new ideas, new tactics, new fitness programmes, new strength workouts - which is fantastic, because I love all that. He's brought in more than one or two good players, too, and if you ignore all the injuries we've had and look at the depth of our squad, there aren't many managers who wouldn't envy it."

Jose Mourinho, of course, is an exception, although Steven Gerrard is believed to be in his basket, never mind on his shopping list, and today may take him another step closer to the checkout. As a "one-club" boy who moved away from the team he had played for since a trainee, Kewell feels well qualified to discuss the dilemma. "Yeah, it's hard when you've been at a club for so long to make that decision. I grew up in Leeds and it was terribly difficult to leave. But everyone is entitled to make their own decisions and sometimes you need a change, a different atmosphere, a different challenge."

If that sounds as if Kewell is happy to show his team-mate the way south, he isn't. Before Tuesday's triumph, a Gerrardless Liverpool was so obviously a rudderless Liverpool, and Kewell admits he is relieved the omnipotent one is back to be everywhere in Cardiff. It's days like these Kewell signed up for at Anfield, ignoring reported offers from Old Trafford and, yes, Stamford Bridge when Roman Abramovich first arrived with his golden chequebook. And although he accepts "our main priority remains the Premiership", an indication of the importance Kewell is attaching to his first final is the sentimental fact that he has flown in his mother and father all the way from Sydney to witness it.

"The closest I've come to a major final before is that Champions' League semi-final with Leeds when we were beat by Valencia. It's going to be a fantastic game between two great sides; all guns blazing, go for it. I'm just thrilled to be a part of it. I haven't even been to the World Cup finals yet, so there's so much I haven't done, so much I haven't achieved. I think it's about time I started doing it."

He and Liverpool both.

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