RAFAEL BENITEZ has expressed concern at the speed in which the Premier League has introduced a quota system for homegrown players.
The Liverpool manager will tonight take charge of his 300th match since joining the Reds as another Champions League campaign starts with a Group E clash against Hungarian champions Debrecen at Anfield.
He has had to contend with quotas in European football for several years, but now he fears for the overall quality of the English game. The new regulations mean there will have to be eight homegrown players in every 25-man league squad from next season.
The 20 Premier League clubs met last Thursday to agree the introduction of the rule. Benitez said: “Maybe it has been brought in too soon. In the Champions League, we had two or three years to increase the numbers of homegrown players. The problem in England is there is a big gap between the academies and the first team, the reserve league is not filling this gap.
“It may now be difficult to maintain quality, but we will continue to do our best. The number of players is not the point, the quality is the point. But if they have decided this, maybe they have been thinking about this rule for a long time.”
Benitez added: “Similar rules have been introduced in the Champions League, first four, then six, now eight homegrown players in each squad. We were all given three years to make these changes slowly.
“Now it will be different, and quicker. It depends on the players. Not the amount, the quality. If a top side has to find eight players from the academy straight away, it may be difficult.
“Academies do not produce too many in England, (homegrown) players tend to play in the lower divisions because they may not be good enough for the very top. Clubs have to bring in the best young players from around the world at a young age to produce the quality (in the academies), and we have been expecting some sort of rule change like this. People talk too much about the age of players and where they are from. They forget about quality, the Premier League is the best league in the world because of the quality, not because of where the players come from.
“When they decided to put this rule in place, maybe they have been thinking about it for years. Sooner rather than later, with the Champions League rules changing, we expected something similar here.
“Players like Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard — when they were 17 — were playing in the first teams. But not too many, because the level is too high.
“Most players need time. But between 18 and 21 years of age, the reserve league is not good enough for them. In two or three years’ time, we will see what the quality of the league is like then.”
Liverpool have one of the highest numbers of foreign players in the Premier League, and can only just manage to meet the current Champions League criteria of eight homegrown players in a 28-man squad.
The likes of Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing, David Martin, Martin Kelly, David Amoo and Nathan Eccleston are academy players in the Champions League squad, but none are close to Premier League level yet.
Benitez will put those concerns behind him for the visit of Debrecen, on their Champions League debut. The Spaniard will have Javier Mascherano back in his squad, after the Argentina captain missed Saturday’s win over Burnley due to a pelvic injury that kept him in South America after World Cup duty.
Benitez hinted that the Premier League is considered Liverpool’s main focus this season. He said: “The Premier League is the priority for the fans, and the Champions League is massive. We will not forget the domestic cups because this club are expected to do well in everything.
“But in a top side like Liverpool, the priority for the fans has to be the Premier League. Then Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup. But I am greedy, I want to win the Premier League and the Champions League.
“We have been very near in the past, so we want to make sure we reach those stages again.”
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