It was fitting that the man who spoke out yesterday in defence of a manager who some say is maligned and others say is flawed should be a player whose career contours have reflected his own.
Fabio Aurelio was one of Rafael Benitez's first signings at Valencia and arrived at Anfield two years after the Spaniard. He has lived through his manager's good times and bad – from the December night in the shadow of Barcelona's Montjuic mountain when Benitez's Valencia future rested on beating local side Espanyol, to the club's legendary 2000-01 La Liga title, a pinnacle the club had waited 31 years for. Significantly, he has also experienced life at a club when Benitez has gone.
"It was a big disappointment for Valencia when Rafa left," Aurelio reflected yesterday. "He came from a second division team [Tenerife] and in his first season there he won La Liga ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Then in his third season he won La Liga again and the Uefa Cup. What he did, nobody could repeat. After he left, everybody was comparing the coaches with Rafa. He won 10 games in a row there, so everybody was expecting the next coach to win 11."
Benitez is considerably further away from that feat than he ever was in eastern Spain but Aurelio believes that Valencia's travails since Benitez left the place – there have been four managers in five years, a solitary Copa Del Rey from domestic competition and severe financial troubles at a time they are trying build their new Nou Mestalla stadium – reflect his true worth. The inference was clear: Liverpool, currently struggling to resolve contractual issues with Benitez, run the risk of only valuing their current manager when he has gone. "Rafa was key to the success Valencia had," the Brazilian added. "Maybe the success [there] was 70 to 80 per cent because of him, and the rest was down to the players. We didn't have a squad with big names but we have a competitive squad."
He might be biased but the last part is certainly true of the overachieving club which Benitez has turned into a European power. The Spaniard is fond of drawing attention to an image in the Melwood press room of Steven Gerrard hoisting up the European Cup and remarking how far removed from the continent's strongest that squad behind him was. If ever a player represented the triumph of focus and willpower over individual limitations then it is Aurelio, a left back who would not elicit a second glance from Chelsea or Manchester United in a transfer window.
Benitez has tutored him assiduously, bluntly informing him when he first arrived at Valencia from Sao Paulo's Morumbi stadium that he must put aside his Brazilian wing-back instincts and learn to defend better. The rewards were there for all to see in the defender's match-winning performance marking Arjen Robben in the Bernabeu last month. In probably his finest performance for Liverpool, Aurelio virtually put the Dutchman out of the game, though he was determined to deflect that compliment when it was put to him yesterday.
"Benitez told all of the defenders that Madrid have got individualists up front that can win games," he said. "It was not only me that stopped Robben, it was the team; [Albert] Riera helped and [Javier] Mascherano closed down the space. Everybody was working together to make the game easier."
Nothing in Benitez's analysis of tonight's game suggested that Liverpool will be any more ambitious offensively tonight than they were in the Bernabeu, despite Juande Ramos' criticism last week of Liverpool's negativity, as he saw it. "I'm really happy about this [criticism], really happy because we won doing a very, very good job." Benitez said. "We have to play well and win – but the order is to win and to play well if it's possible."
Despite Liverpool's advantage, the tie is finely poised. Four times in the past nine seasons Liverpool have lost a second leg tie at Anfield following an initial away win and Real defender Fabio Cannavaro was aware of that yesterday. "If they want to win the game they are going to have to play and this is the moment where we could take advantage,'' he said.
It all adds up to a typical European night for Aurelio, who like Dirk Kuyt and Daniel Agger is caught up in the impasse caused by Benitez's drawn out contract discussions at a time when he would like a deal to succeed one which runs out at the end of next season. A deal for the manager would be a good start though, Aurelio believes. "It is essential that Liverpool must try to keep him," he said. "In almost every year he has got to the final stages of the Champions League and we have been getting closer to the title."
Fabio Aurelio: Life and times
*Age: 29; Nationality: Brazilian; Position: left-back.
*Total appearances: 270; goals: 19; Liverpool appearances: 78; goals: 2.
*Joined Valencia in 2001 and won La Liga title in his first season, also Rafael Benitez's first in charge.
*Missed 2004 La Liga and Uefa Cup double season with a broken leg.
*Signed on a free transfer by his former manager in 2006 in the hope of reproducing his 2002-03 form.Reuse content