Benitez leaves his calling card at Real

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The Independent Online

Rafael Benitez left Madrid 11 days ago enlivened and enraptured that his Liverpool side had accomplished what he had never before achieved as a manager at Santiago Bernabeu, his footballing alma mater. The grin on his face seemed to say that he felt he had delivered a serious statement of intent about his own unvarnished yearnings to manage in that stadium some day.

The Madrileños didn't quite see it that way. Defeat of the kind that Liverpool and Yossi Benayoun doled out, which makes the prospect of Real progressing when they visit Anfield on Tuesday a slim one, tends to prompt a period of introspection in Madrid, with talk of which conquistador might be worth signing up. Not once has Benitez's name cropped up among the capital's football cognoscenti.

Though Juande Ramos was too shell-shocked to offer much response after his side had been mugged by Benayoun's 82nd-minute header, he waited until last week to offer a more fulsome – and brutal – analysis of what Benitez had delivered that night.

When it was put to Ramos that his compatriot – the same Benitez who once studiously scribbled assessments of Real from the stands – had out-thought him, Ramos demurred in the strongest terms. "I disagree," he said. "Liverpool came to the Bernabeu not to play football but to get the nil-nil. On top of that they scored from a set-play and went away with an undeserved victory. They will play the same way at Anfield. But if we score, we will have a real chance of going through."

Sour grapes, you might say. The Real manager knows defeat over two legs may end his own hopes of assuming the post permanently when his contract expires this summer. But Ramos was in touch with the prevailing mood in Madrid, where they like their football served with style.

Benitez's grounds for gloominess extend to these shores, of course. His fans still adore him but the dark mood he conveyed after Liverpool beat Sunderland on Tuesday suggested that he might be wondering if he ever will bring Liverpool the piece of domestic silverware they covet above all. "I just get on with the game," he said, with an expression somewhere between a grimace and a winsome grin, on Monday when asked if he felt he was carrying the can for 19 years without a title.

All that will be out of view come Tuesday, on another great Anfield night when that mighty home record in Europe is defended. (It was two years ago yesterday that a European side, Barcelona, last won at Anfield). But not out of mind, perhaps, as the club realise they are back behind the starting blocks all over again.

Still short of a second world-class striker; needing to rebuild in many key departments; trying to recruit a chief executive to help undertake the building work. And hoping a strong individual can be persuaded to take a job which, with Benitez demanding more control and the banks possibly foreclosing on the owners' loans in July, looks like a poisoned chalice.

No one is too sure where that leaves the players. The Benitez code – that is all he offers at times – seemed to suggest indignation last week that one of his senior players, Jamie Carragher, is reluctant to play at right-back.

For as long as the European quest is alive, these cold realities will remain at bay. Once it is extinguished, there will be no avoiding them. That places this European adventure in a different, more challenging landscape to those he has embarked on with Liverpool before. Two short weeks since the Bernabeu. A minor eternity in the life of Rafael Benitez.

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