Jamie Carragher says the departure of Xabi Alonso in 2009 was “pivotal” to Liverpool’s decline and he still cannot understand why Rafa Benitez “had to continue the fight” with Alonso.
The 35-year-old midfielder this week announced his intention to retire in the summer, bringing the curtain down on an 18-year professional career during which he won the World Cup, European Championship twice and Champions League twice.
Alonso spent five years at Liverpool between 2004 and 2009 and was loved by the Anfield fans, who were gutted to see the Spain star depart for Real Madrid.
Alonso’s relationship with Benitez turned sour in his final year at the club after Rafa tried to sell him and sign Gareth Barry, who was then at Aston Villa.
Carragher though still cannot believe that Benitez wanted rid of Alonso and believes it was a “pivotal moment” in the club’s decline.
“He was a strong character, loved by the fans, so when Benitez wanted to sell him in 2008 there was uproar and there was an episode during a pre-season game with Lazio at Anfield when the Kop sang ‘You can stick your Gareth Barry up your a***’ about his potential replacement,” Carragher wrote in his Daily Mail column.
“Rafa’s intention was to offload Xabi for £30million and buy Barry for half that price. The appeal of Barry was that he was English and could play in two or three positions. But, believe it or not, only Juventus and Arsenal were keen to take Xabi.
“When it became clear those interested in Xabi were only prepared to pay £15m — and Aston Villa wanted £30m for Barry — the club pulled the plug. I, along with a lot of others, was delighted but there’s no doubt the intervention caused problems, with Rafa and Xabi, and Rafa and the board.
“It was a pivotal moment. Xabi stayed and his form surpassed the level of his spectacular first year. We finished runners-up to Manchester United in 2009 but when Real Madrid arrived on the scene for him, I became fearful he would go as the wounds of 12 months earlier had not healed.
“This is where I have my biggest problem. I had no issue with Xabi wanting to join Real — for Spanish players that is the pinnacle — but I couldn’t understand why Benitez didn’t hold out an olive branch to sort things out.
“Benitez had his best team in five years at Anfield. We were close to having a team that could win the Premier League and perhaps reach another Champions League final. Why did he have to continue the fight with Xabi? He had won the initial battle by getting the upturn in his form.
“What’s more, Xabi was under contract, so Liverpool didn’t have to sell. They proved that the same summer when not letting Javier Mascherano join Barcelona. But the writing was on the wall for Xabi and things were never really the same after he left.
“The team suffered in what proved to be Benitez’s final year. Alberto Aquilani, Xabi’s replacement, arrived from Roma with an injury — he didn’t play until October 2009 — and he wasn’t good enough to fill the void. The way our team functioned broke down.”