As Liverpool this afternoon begin a period of four critical games in 10 days of what was supposed to be their best season for years, it has emerged that Rafael Benitez is as frustrated as ever with the way the club is being run. Although he has the support of one of the American owners, Tom Hicks, the manager’s relationship with the other one, George Gillett, is non-existent and that divide is one reason why his new contract is no nearer to being signed.
After today’s home game with Manchester City, when supporters will again demonstrate their backing for him, Benitez takes Liverpool to meet his former club Real Madrid in midweek with leaks in the Spanish capital continuing to link him with the job of head coach there, which is currently held on a temporary basis by Juande Ramos. Although Benitez has again insisted that he wishes to remain at Anfield, supporters fear that eventually Real’s interest will coincide with a period of sufficient disillusionment for him to take himself and his family back home.
Benitez first said 13 months ago that he wanted the contract to be sorted out quickly, but the speed with which anything happens at the club remains one of his greatest complaints, first voiced the morning after defeat by Milan in the 2007 Champions’ League final. Nothing appears to have improved. Now almost a dozen of his staff are waiting to have their contracts renewed, as are a number of players including Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and Alvaro Arbeloa.
He is also understood to have wanted reinforcements for his squad in the January transfer window for Liverpool’s most serious Premier League challenge yet, but all that happened was Robbie Keane’s departure, which he sanctioned. With Manchester United winning their games in hand to overhaul Liverpool at the top of the table, the more pessimistic supporters are concerned that defeat by Everton in the FA Cup was merely the first sign of a promising season blowing up in red faces.
“There is no news,” Benitez said of contract negotiations. “I am concentrating on football.” He and his squad will have to concentrate hard over the next week and a half, during which winnable League games with Middlesbrough and Sunderland are also on the schedule. As he admits of that period: “Anything can happen. After that, in 10 or more days, we will have a better idea.”
They could also be out of the European Cup, after meeting Real for the first time since defeating them 1-0 in the 1981 final. On the other hand, a victory would increase confidence and self-esteem sufficiently to put off-the-field concerns into perspective; not to mention further enhancing Benitez’s reputation in his home city.
Whatever the effect on him, Wednesday’s visit to the Bernabeu will be a trip back in time. “I signed after a trial when I was 13 years old and was there around 20 years as player and coach,” he said, “from playing for the Under-14s until working as assistant manager to [Vicente] Del Bosque with the first team. I was in charge of the youth teams and the reserve team and learnt that to win was the only thing that counted, because to finish second with Real Madrid was a disaster. You had to win every game and you could do it because you had very good players. In the youth team we were winning 19-nil and I would be very disappointed to concede one goal. One year I was distraught even though we only lost two games all season, because we lost the League. That was the mentality. I learnt a lot there as a manager, a coach and a person.”
A “disaster” in football terms is what the season has been for Real in the sense that Barcelona have not only left them behind in the League but are threatening to break their records for points and goals in a season. Benitez can hardly talk down the opposition, however, whatever his private thoughts about them from reports and personal observation; and he was not even prepared to agree with Sir Alex Ferguson that Manchester United have the hardest tie against Internazionale. “I’ve had my scouts and television,” he said. “They are a good team with good players and they are improving in defence so they’re difficult to beat and they also have confidence.”
Ruud van Nistelrooy is out for the season but among those players Benitez has particular respect for is the only man with more Champions’ League goals than the former Manchester United man: the 31-year-old former national team captain Raul, who has also just become Real’s record scorer. “I saw him when he was 14 playing for Atletico, then 15 for Real. He won the Cup with both teams at that age then went to the third youth team. Within weeks the second youth team, then within weeks was with me in the reserve team and in 10 days in the first team. He was 16 playing for the youth teams, then 17 and playing in the first team. He showed character, a winning mentality and has the same mentality now. I’ve been lucky in having very good players but Raul was the kind of player you know from the first day has the mentality to be successful.”
At least Jamie Carragher and his fellow defenders will be exceptionally well briefed, even by Benitez’s standards, about what to expect. As Xabi Alonso has emphasised, they need an away goal to take back to Anfield, which, with Steven Gerrard unlikely to start, puts greater responsibility on Fernando Torres. Also returning to his home city, albeit as a former Atletico hero, Torres has benefited more than most from Liverpool’s two-week break since his dramatic intervention as a substitute in heading the winning goal at Portsmouth.
Reminded that his most expensive striker has never scored at Real’s ground, Benitez said: “Until Wednesday! It’s hard for Atletico or any team to score there. It is just a coincidence. We have shown we can win without Torres and Gerrard. But Torres is close to being back to his best. He was not fully fit against Chelsea but he scored. He’s looked really good in our recent training sessions.”
As for his own position, and the possibility of returning to Madrid permanently, Benitez was diplomacy personified: “My priority now is to win with Liverpool. You never know what will happen in the future but at this moment I’m really pleased here.” The reality appears to be rather different.
This week’s games
Arsenal v Roma
Four times in five seasons Arsenal have come up short in the knockout stages of the competition, always through an inadequate home performance. Neither Andrey Arshavin (ineligible), nor Eduardo (hamstring injury) will be available to break down an Italian defence missing the injured John Arne Riise. Roma beat Chelsea 3-1 in the group stage but have been beaten heavily and then comfortably by Manchester United in the past two campaigns.
Atletico Madrid v Porto
Atletico’s form since Christmas has been so poor that they have sacked coach Javier Aguirre. Diego Forlan is still going strong in attack alongside one of European football’s most highly regarded youngsters, Argentinian Sergio Aguero, who constitutes the main threat. Porto, although far from the team of Jose Mourinho’s day, were the surprising winners of Arsenal’s group.
Internazionale v Manchester United
Mourinho has played something of an English style in taking Inter to within sight of a Serie A title by using big strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano. The latter looked like a floundering fish out of water for Brazil at the Emirates recently, but Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans (Nemanja Vidic is banned) will have their hands full in the stadium where United were badly beaten by Milan two years ago.
Lyon v Barcelona
In their first season under Pep Guardiola, Barcelona are by common consent the most exciting team in Europe. A defensive or counter-attacking side may yet undo them, but they should come through this tie comfortably. Then for Lyon it will be back to the dull old matter of winning an eighth successive French League title.
Chelsea v Juventus
A welcome return to the Champions’ League for Guus Hiddink, who was a last-minute goal away from taking PSV to the 2005 final against Liverpool. A tricky task awaits against Juve, though the “Old Lady” is indeed ageing; can the 36-year-old Pavel Nedved match Frank Lampard’s midfield running? Olof Mellberg (ex-Aston Villa) and Momo Sissoko (formerly of Liverpool) will know what to expect at Stamford Bridge, where Claudio Ranieri deserves a warm reception.
Real Madrid v Liverpool
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, one of Madrid’s January purchases, is ineligible, so Raul of Real will presumably be leading the home attack a week after succeeding Alfredo di Stefano as the club’s highest scorer. Lassana Diarra was signed from Portsmouth and could be assigned to look after Steven Gerrard, for however many of the 90 minutes Rafa Benitez allows his captain.
Sporting Lisbon v Bayern Munich
The Bavarians, although they have not dominated the Bundesliga this season as might have been expected, should be too strong for a Sporting side who benefited from a favourable draw in their group, qualifying behind Barcelona despite losing to them by an aggregate of 8-3. That took them to the knockout stage for the first time but they have never beaten German opposition in 14 attempts.
Villarreal v Panathinaikos
Robert Pires (Villarreal) meets up with Gilberto Silva (Panathinaikos) with the Frenchman favourite to make the quarter-final. Under Henk Ten Cate, briefly at Chelsea, the Greek side won at Inter and Werder Bremen to reach this stage but Villarreal are unbeaten in Champions’ League games at the atmospheric Madrigal Stadium.
Odds: 100-30 Barcelona; 11-2 Chelsea; 6-1 Manchester United; 17-2 Inter; 11-1 Liverpool; 14-1 Arsenal, Bayern, Real Madrid; 20-1 Juventus, Villarreal; 25-1 Atletico, Roma; 40-1 Lyon; 66-1 Porto; 100-1 Panathinaikos, Sporting. (Provided by William Hill.)