Glory will not slow Benitez's Anfield revolution

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He was far from the most exuberant, excited character in the foyer of the Istanbul Crowne Plaza hotel this morning, but as Rafael Benitez led his wife Montse through the well-wishers there was an argument for saying the Liverpool coach was the most important. His European Cup victory had, overnight, made him the undisputed king of England's football managers and there will be nothing that even Jose Mourinho can do to change that for at least 12 months.

He was far from the most exuberant, excited character in the foyer of the Istanbul Crowne Plaza hotel this morning, but as Rafael Benitez led his wife Montse through the well-wishers there was an argument for saying the Liverpool coach was the most important. His European Cup victory had, overnight, made him the undisputed king of England's football managers and there will be nothing that even Jose Mourinho can do to change that for at least 12 months.

How an unassuming, portly 45-year-old Madrista came to capture the hearts of the most successful club in British football history is an astonishing story, but even the terms upon which he did so on Wednesday night in Istanbul will be slightly alien to Benitez. A comeback from three goals down and a victory on penalties is not the way this studious, analytical coach likes to plot his triumphs. One conversation with Benitez will tell you that he is not one of life's natural risk-takers but that he possesses, above all, a remarkable ability to stay in calm in desperate times.

What we are about to find out, however, is that the father-of-two whose own football career was ended at 26 sees no room for sentimentality in the profession that absorbs him. Jerzy Dudek was the penalty-saving hero of Istanbul but he could well lead a significant corps of players out of Anfield this summer as Benitez dares to do the unthinkable: break up the European Cup-winning team of 2005.

Already the Spanish goalkeeper Jose Reina from Villareal, the new force in Spanish football, has indicated that he will be joining Liverpool. Dudek has two years left on his contract but like many of the odd bunch that Benitez inherited from his predecessor Gérard Houllier he could find himself surplus to requirement. Last night's second goalscorer Vladimir Smicer is out of contract and has said he will be leaving and Dietmar Hamann and Igor Biscan are also unlikely to find their deals renewed this summer.

It could even be farewell to Sami Hyypia, the veteran Finnish centre-back who struggled desperately in the first half on Wednesday and has still not had any indication that the year he has remaining will be extended. Milan Baros went to Taksim Square to celebrate last night but for the Czech striker, and Harry Kewell, it could also be a valedictory performance as Benitez clears out those he feels are not suited to his masterplan to win the Premiership.

"My responsibility is to make decisions and I have a clear idea about the future and will talk to the players about my plans," Benitez said. "Before the final we had ideas and now I will have to talk to them. You need to analyse your squad and the possibilities that you have and how much money there is to be spent. Then you must decide.

"I said at first we were 60 per cent there, now maybe 70 per cent but we have a long way to go to improve. We now have an interesting situation where players will want to join us. The first thing is that we have won the trophy and we are now in some important games like the European Super Cup. We have a good team but a lot players will want to join us because we are champions."

As well as Reina, those who are known to interest Benitez are the Real Zaragoza centre-back Gabriel Milito, Bayern Munich's England international Owen Hargreaves and Fulham's striker Luis Boa Morte. After last night, he will have a much easier job persuading them that a move to Liverpool is a move up the hierarchy of European football. Even as flight AWC900A landed at John Lennon International airport yesterday with the European Cup strapped in seat 5C, Benitez was planning his next move.

He has planned his career to precision, even taking a year out after he was sacked by Osasuna in the mid-Nineties to visit the training grounds of Milan and Manchester United with his loyal assistant Pako Ayestaran. He jokes about the expensive gifts that he feels obliged to buy Montse whenever he wins a trophy but even though Benitez cuts an inconspicuous figure next to his taller, more glamorous wife there is no doubt that his ambition is his driving force.

At yesterday's press conference in Istanbul, Benitez spoke about his emphasis on analysis and problem-solving and it is that which informs his regime at the club's Melwood training headquarters. He is regarded as a workaholic who spends hours in discussions with his staff poring over the finer points of a team's performance but it is his ability to analyse in match situations that is his greatest strength.

"Rafa can look at a game and make a decision very quickly," one Liverpool official said yesterday. "He analyses a game and knows almost immediately how to change it."

There was no question of Benitez throwing the half-time Isotonic drinks against the wall or tearing into an individual at half-time on Wednesday. His temper is kept in check even if it has taken a while for the cool, methodical processes of analysis that Benitez employs to catch the imagination at Liverpool. In contrast to Houllier who could not help himself pitching into battle against any pundit or ex- player who dared question his regime, Benitez has been impervious to even the most cutting criticisms.

"I don't show emotion but I do feel something inside," he said. "It was the same in Spain. I do my job and I enjoy it but the job is the most important thing. This was a game - as a manager you prepare for a game, not a final. As a manager you need to analyse your mistakes and try to do your job and if you start to feel emotion you are not in control of the situation.

"What you need to do is to give the players something. This time I first changed the system and then I asked the players to be a bit more aggressive. We need to score in order to change the game. You must give the players a solution. No, I don't show my emotions so maybe in that way I am a little bit English.

"When I came here I saw it as a challenge to win trophies and now we need to work hard because we are champions and that means we need to do the right things in the future," he said. "Next season I think it will be easier for me to talk to the players, to express my ideas and to win more trophies. Maybe it will be more difficult but for me as a manager the players will understand me better and I will know them."

Beyond football, there is little that interests Benitez other than his daughters Claudia, 6 and Agatha, 2, who were both in Istanbul to witness the finest night in their father's glittering career that has already taken in two Spanish league titles and a Uefa Cup with Valencia. "Claudia now believes that winning a trophy is like a regular event for her father," Montse said. "She feels entitled to believe that this is a fact of life - a bit like Christmas."

The only minor embarrassment in 24 hours of football nirvana was the arrival of Houllier in the changing rooms after the game. The former Liverpool manager had been part of a Uefa presentation to young footballers on the pitch before the match and the club's officials were a little taken aback to see him come in to join the celebrations afterwards. Especially when he stayed a little longer than might have been expected.

But Benitez has maintained his goodwill through one of the most exacting 10 days of any manager's career. At the end of a season that threatened such failure he now has the European Cup, a guarantee from Steven Gerrard that he will stay at the club and what could be a place in the Champions' League next season despite the fifth-placed finish. That he has accomplished so much with a squad that lost Michael Owen last summer is all the more admirable.

The Liverpool chairman David Moores is rarely moved to make public pronouncements but he said yesterday that he might now have to refer to his manager as "the magician". It will be a title that will amuse Benitez, especially for a man for whom magic, or luck, has, in his own opinion, nothing to do with his success. If Liverpool are to re-establish their dynasty of the late Seventies and Eighties, then it will be built upon the relentless hard work of their manager.

A time to reflect: Opinions from around the game on Liverpool's remarkable Champions' League victory

CRAIG BROWN
Former Scotland manager

The harder half-time talk would have been Ancel-otti's. The third goal would have made it more difficult to maintain concentration. Benitez would have told his players: 'Pull your fingers out! You're embarrassing the Red Army!' It was good to see my old assistant Alex Miller at his side, a real unsung hero.

JOHN BARNWELL
Chief executive of the League Managers' Association

I was surprised Benitez omitted Hamann from the starting line-up. But he's proved in Europe that he's got an acute tactical brain and I bow to his superior knowledge. It was superb management at half-time, not least introducing Hamann, which released Gerrard so profitably.

TERRY BUTCHER
Former England captain, now Motherwell manager

As a manager, I can only praise Benitez's marvellous achievement in recovering a bad situation. We only know with hindsight that starting Harry Kewell didn't work out, but Benitez rectified the problem and Liverpool were worthy winners. It's great for English football.

JAN MOLBY
Liverpool European Cup veteran during 1980s

In hindsight, Benitez got it wrong in the first half. Sending on Hamann changed everything. Gerrard and Alonso had been too concerned with Kaka. Hamann took care of him and allowed them to do their thing. The platform is there for them to challenge in the Premiership.

GARY McALLISTER
Uefa Cup winner with Liverpool in 2001

I liked Benitez's humility in victory - he's the opposite of Jose Mourinho - and he must have given a hell of a team talk at half-time. Heads were down but he must have been oozing belief. Maybe he should have started with Hamann, but it's always easy with hindsight.

BILLY McNEILL
Captain of Celtic's European Cup winners in 1967

Benitez had a good record in Spain but he has had to learn about English football. At half-time, when I was fearful they would get a drubbing, he stuck on Hamann, which freed up Gerrard. It's too soon to put him up there with Shankly and Paisley, but what a start.

HOWARD WILKINSON
Former Leeds manager

Benitez sorted out his problems at half-time, and credit to him. I don't actually think Harry Kewell was his biggest problem - just look at where the errors came for Milan's first two goals. But my abiding thoughts at the end were all about Steven Gerrard. He's a very special player and person.

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