What do you with a problem like Stevie G?

For all the rotation and transfer talk, the central issue dogging Benitez is his talisman
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The Independent Football

He reminds you of those recent National Lottery winners from a Bradford printing firm whose successful system involved the use of all 49 numbers in their permutations. They stayed faithful to it for four years until their numbers came up. Rafa Benitez takes a similar view about rotating the slightly smaller number of shirts from which he can select his side.

The Lottery syndicate's numbers eventually came up correctly, and their haul was £5.3m. The problem is that it does not easily translate to football. The Liverpool manager's system again looks destined to win a knockout competition, if anything at all. That has contributed to a further chipping away of his reputation; one that was begun at Valencia, completed on a night in Istanbul 17 months ago, and then polished in an FA Cup-winning season.

Though it ended with a flourish yesterday, it has been a tricky week for the Spaniard. A member of the seven-man board has broken ranks and criticised his management skills, transfer policy and rotation system, while the Anfield old boys have also been vocally questioning aspects of his judgement.

But it is Steven Gerrard's deployment, more than anything, that continues to place his managerial acumen under scrutiny. Gerrard's former team-mate Jamie Redknapp, now a TV and newspaper pundit, goes as far to contend that the England man could be forced to leave Anfield by constantly being forced to play out wide.

In truth that appears unlikely, not least because Gerrard knows that no other coach of a leading club, here or abroad, would guarantee him the berth he covets any more than Benitez does. Benitez has a brief response to suggestions that frustration will ultimately cause Gerrard to seek a new challenge. "If we continue improving and start winning games I think he will be happy."

Turning the question around, it was put to the Liverpool manager that he may be forced to cash in on his key asset. "No," he insists. "The last time we had a problem, I was supporting Steve and said to him, 'Listen Steve, we want to see you at Liverpool for a long time, winning trophies with us'. I still have the same idea, because I think he is a really good player."

Benitez adds: "I want to improve my team and, as I have said before, [I want to achieve that] around Steve. I only want to win with him. For me it's very clear. I don't have any doubts about Steve. He is a very good player for us and he will continue to be a key player for us."

Gerrard has long suffered, if that is the correct word, from his exceptional versatility, when representing both England and Liverpool. He is a member of that rare species which will never suffer extinction. One of his qualities is that he can adapt readily to his environment. Full-back; holding midfielder; attacking midfielder; right and left midfielder. The former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson even contended that he could convert to a second striker, although that really was thrusting a non-amphibian into choppy waters.

It is natural that Gerrard should have a preferred habitat. When he spoke to this observer before the World Cup, Gerrard emphasised how he had played only once in his favoured position for his country in 40 games. That, he added pointedly, was for 45 minutes against Uruguay in a friendly at Anfield.

Where his club role is concerned, Gerrard plays the diplomat, even if his words resonate with irritation. "When you're a young player breaking through, you want to play in your favourite position," he says. "But I'm 26, and I have to think of the team first. If the manager needs me to do a job, I've got to accept it."

If there is one certainty about chef Benitez's constantly changing menu, which seemingly offers no classic combination to satisfy his customers, it is that Gerrard remains his signature dish. Yet while the dynamic midfielder will remain a pivotal member of the team, Gerrard continues to be confined to territory he is said to regard as unsuited to his marauding instincts.

Benitez remains unmoved by what emanates from the pundits' boot-room and any hint of dissatisfaction from the player himself. "Remember last season when we were winning 11 games in a row? Steven was playing on the right side and no one was talking about his position then," the Liverpool manager retorts. "When we won the Champions' League he was playing as a right full-back. Sometimes really good players know they need to do something for the team."

As it is, we are not speaking of a touchline-hugging, old-fashioned winger, confined to a wilderness and starved of the ball if his team are not in possession. He revels in the space that the flank offers, and is entrusted by his manager to alter-nate wings and thrust inside.

The Spaniard adds: "He has played some games this season in the middle and I think he will play more games in the centre. If we think we can play Steve in the middle and have other options for the wide areas, and we think it is better for the team, then we will do it."

It is this obsession with producing a team not for the season but for the occasion which dominates Benitez's thinking. He continues to defend that approach. "You need to talk with all your staff and make decisions," he says. "If you can win, people will say, 'Fantastic' about the sel-ection and rotation. If you don't, then people can be frustrated."

Liverpool meet Bordeaux again in the Champions' League on Tuesday having already achieved that unusual feat this season in any competition, an away victory against a French club. Benitez knows, though, that it will require rather more than progress in Europe if he is to withstand hostility from some quarters.

"I am not really worried about one person [the anonymous critical board member]," he maintains. "Everyone has an opinion. I am not worried about people talking about me in the papers. I had it all the time at Valencia.

"We know that we need to improve - especially away from home." And he departs, to perm his next starting 11 - leaving his critics to claim such a strategy is all a lottery.

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