Benayoun provides ray of light for Benitez
Real Madrid 0 Liverpool 1
Thursday 26 February 2009
The Bernabeu has been the scene of enough disappointments to last Rafael Benitez a lifetime but it was a place where he found renewed belief, salvation even, when he most needed it last night. He has never taken a team to this stadium and won but Yossi Benayoun's headed goal, eight minutes from time, strengthened his hand on a day of further talks about his contract and he left his native country making more positive noises about his Liverpool future, even though he fell short of categorically committing his future to the club.
"I was clear before the game I was not thinking about resigning," said Benitez, who began the day at the centre of feverish, false rumours that he was about to part company with the club. "My lawyer was talking to the owners' advisers but the idea is to keep working for the club. I will talk to the owners in the future. We have plenty of time for talks."
That said, Juande Ramos' own hopes of his tenure being extended beyond the season have taken a severe blow, which should give Liverpool cause for concern with Benitez in Real's sights. It is hard to see him resisting, given the way Benitez is currently feeling about his lot at Liverpool.
If Liverpool do progress at Anfield in 12 days – and there was nothing in Real's play to suggest they will pose the challenges Benitez spoke of so deferentially last night – it will mean they have reached the quarter-finals in four of the last five years. All in all, a good night's compensation for the fact that as a player, Benitez never made it beyond Real Madrid's 'B' team and his time as assistant first-team coach was curtailed after 11 weeks.
"I will try to enjoy [this] now," Benitez said, not the kind of response you tend to get from him but a wise one, given that new domestic worries are stacking up. Fernando Torres will probably miss Liverpool's trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday having twisted and swollen his ankle in a first-minute challenge here.
Drawn games might be Liverpool's undoing in domestic competition but on the continent Benitez can luxuriate in better results. This one ranked among Liverpool's finest on Benitez's watch, given that Steven Gerrard had to undergo dressing room exercises which prevented him so much as joining the pre-match warm-up.
His replacement Benayoun, instrumental to Liverpool's recent wins against Chelsea and Portsmouth, might have been the matchwinner, courtesy of him being allowed to rise unchallenged to deposit Fabio Aurelio's free-kick from the right, but Aurelio himself was the hero.
The Brazilian, who followed Benitez to Liverpool from Valencia nearly three years ago, is an unsung individual at Anfield and by no means the fastest across the turf but that made the way he almost entirely eliminated Real's only potent threat, Arjen Robben, all the more admirable.
"They were missing two great footballers [Torres and Gerrard] but the best of Liverpool today was their defence," Ramos admitted. Though Robben's display will cause any Chelsea fans who watched last night's game to wonder how Chelsea came to sell him, he forced a solitary save from Pepe Reina – and the Spaniard had no more work all night.
Ramos added, however, that Real are still confident of turning the tie around in the second leg. "We are only halfway through," he said, "and we have the desire and hope to win at Anfield and we are going to fight with all our strength to achieve it.
"Liverpool have the advantage because they have the lead but there is still another match to go and if we have a good game we can win at Anfield, and anywhere else. We are going to fight and work hard in the return match."
For a side who had scored ten in their previous two La Liga games the misfire was baffling, though perhaps a product of Real's own negative game-plan. "We were more worried about not conceding goals," Ramos said. "It was meant to be 0-0."
That strategy, taken with Benitez's, tells you that this collision between two of the masters of European football was always was destined to be about as grey as Picasso's colour scheme for Guernica. Certainly not a match to tell your grandchildren about in years to come.
Liverpool settled for route one, Reina pumping fully half-a-dozen balls directly to Torres during the first half. He latched onto just one, placing a shot from the right hand side of the box which Iker Casillas clawed around his right hand post. Xabi Alonso made the same route look slightly more appealing, intercepting a loose ball in midfield and, after spotting Casillas off his line, hoisting an audacious shot from the centre circle which the Real keeper just flipped over the bar.
Real played on the floor but the ingenious interaction Raul and Robben demonstrated four minutes in – the Real captain took the Dutchman's clever angular pass and fired a sharp shot at a comfortable height for Reina – was the best it was to get.
Torres finally hobbled off on the hour, by which time Ramos had asked Robben to test Liverpool's right flank a little. But Liverpool's endgame seemed destined to match Manchester United's 24 hours earlier when Gabriel Heinze fouled Dirk Kuyt.
The ensuing free-kick blasted some much needed fresh air into Anfield, as did Gerrard's arrival five minutes later. "He was there just in case we needed to keep the ball at the end," said Benitez, whose ovations from the crowd all night demonstrated how they feel about him. Don't bank on the peace holding for too long, though. The current Liverpool aren't that kind of a club.
Real Madrid (4-4-2): Casillas; Ramos, Cannavaro, Pepe, Heinze; Robben, Diarra, Gago, Marcelo (Guti, h-t); Raul, Higuain. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Saviola, Sneijder, Metzelder, Miguel Torres, Van der Vaart
Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio; Alonso, Mascherano; Benayoun, Kuyt, Riera (Gerrard, 88); Torres (Babel, 61). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri, Dossena, Hyypia, Lucas, N'Gog
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).
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