The shadow of Gerard Houllier hangs over Rafa Benitez despite his success in steering Liverpool – against the odds and the draw – to the Champions League Final in his first season.
When Houllier was a new kid on the Anfield block he generated professions of undying loyalty from the Kop for the remarkable 2001 of the five cups: League Cup, FA Cup, UEFA Cup, Charity Shield and European Supercup.
But the anticipated progress to Premiership success proved elusive. Houllier’s health problems compounded by some unfortunate transfer dealings, the distractions of the new stadium proposals plus the boardroom power game all drained energy away from the pitch. One further League Cup triumph in 2003 was all Houllier had to show over the next three years and his departure last summer was thus inevitable.
Liverpool fans hanker after a return to the good old days when they dominated both at home and abroad. The ideal scenario sees domestic success followed by international expansion but Benitez, like Houllier before him, has turned that cliche around. A run of 13 defeats in 36 Premiership games was an odd platform on which to build the overthrow of Chelsea on that dramatic, old-fashioned glory night at Anfield.
Was it a goal? Referee Lubos Michel was perfectly placed to judge that Luis Garcia’s flick had crossed the line before the desperate clearance by William Gallas. Liverpool will not pause long to worry about the rights and wrongs. They have conceded enough controversial goals in Europe down the years, right the way back to the beating by Internazionale in Milan in 1965. They also ‘owed’ Chelsea after the luckless own goal from Steven Gerrard which gave Jose Mourinho’s men their League Cup Final lifeline in Cardiff in February.
But Benitez, having struggled with a season-long injury crisis, goalkeeping confusion plus the irritating uncertainty over Gerrard’s future, relies on hard work not luck. That is the ‘secret’ of his success which has so far earned promotion for Tenerife and two Spanish championships for Valencia with last season’s UEFA Cup thrown in for good measure.
But for Rafael Benitez Maudes, guiding Liverpool to Champions League glory would far outstrip anything else he has achieved. Even reaching the Final had struck a blow for the Arrigo Sacchi dictum. This states that “you don’t have to have been a horse to be a successful jockey” – i.e. that a starry playing career is not essential for coaching success.
Benitez, at 44 not only the most successful Spanish coach at the moment but also the youngest, built his initial reputation as a youth coach at Real Madrid. His ambition far outstripped his appreciation of the security of a role as faithful retainer so he parachuted out in 1995 to learn his coaching craft with Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremadura and Tenerife before succeeding Internazionale-bound Hector Cuper at Valencia. It’s been success ever since.
Whether that qualified Benitez for the Liverpool heritage was another matter. Liverpool fans are
a demanding bunch, brought up to expect maintenance of the massive tradition which has brought four European Cup wins and 18 League titles. But they last won the European Cup in 1984 and their most recent domestic championship came in 1990, in pre-Premiership days.
Benitez had barely arrived before Michael Owen was sold to Real Madrid, further complicating his reconstruction work. Thus Liverpool, despite reaching Istanbul, remain a team in transition. Injuries carved significant chunks out of the season for main men such Milan Baros, Didi Hamann, Xabi Alonso and Djibril Cisse. They failed to compete with the Premiership’s top three and some of their domestic performances, woven in between the heady European victories over Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea, have been simply awful.
Reaching Istanbul was discounted by all but the super-optimistics when Liverpool only just squeaked through, 2-1 on aggregate, against Grazer AK in the third qualifying round.
Defender Jamie Carragher, magnificent in the second half of the season, says: “At the start of
the season, we felt it would probably be an achievement just to get through the group stage under a new coach because we were rebuilding. Being in the Final now shows how far we’ve come under Rafa Benitez.”
Loner with a laptop
Benitez once described himself as a “loner with a laptop” because of his obsession with footballing detail. He has always stressed the importance of unity. After Valencia’s 2-0 UEFA Cup Final win over Marseille last year, he said: “We had some great individual performances. But above all, we’re a team whose players can all depend on each other.”
Benitez quickly broke up the Anfield cliques and brought in Spain-based players he knew and trusted – Luis Garcia, Josemi, Xabi Alonso, the makeweight Antonio Nunez, the Euro-ineligible Mauricio Pellegrino and Fernando Morientes – to bolster what was already there.
Finding the right blend amid the Premiership frenzy has not been easy. Benitez believes it will be next season before Liverpool’s imports can fully handle the physical demands of English football.
Goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek says: “They are two different games. The Premiership is much harder with a lot of physical challenges. In the Champions League, the game is not so fast and physical. We can play our football and that suits us.”
In fact, Liverpool were three minutes from going out at the group stage, before Gerrard’s 87th-minute strike sank Olympiakos 3-1 and carried Liverpool into the last 16. Leverkusen were beaten 3-1 both home and away before Liverpool withstood the emotional pressure of the Heysel anniversary to outrun but also outwit Juventus 2-1 at home, goalless away, despite the injury absence of Gerrard.
Benitez said: “We had a plan to defend high up the pitch and we carried it out. The whole team did their jobs.”
Twice then Liverpool kept clean sheets against Chelsea, who were reduced in each leg to hitting high balls towards the heads of Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman. Luis Garcia’s controversial strike was enough. Benitez says: “Before the Champions League started I would have been absolutely delighted with a semi-final place. Now hard work has brought us an even better opportunity.”
Hopefully the vast distance Liverpool have come under Benitez will not be forgotten should Istanbul not turn out quite as he hopes.
By Keir Radnedge