James Lawton: Ancelotti can show Benitez the value of nurturing confidence

Benitez's reaction to a piece of virtuosity by one of his stars is often just to scribble a note
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The Independent Football

You may believe that savaging Rafa Benitez has become an issue for the League Against Cruel Sports but sometimes it is too easy to get these things out of perspective. We are, after all, talking about someone who will benefit by roughly £20m if he should lose his job.

It is also true that quite a number of his critics are concerned not to dance on one of the more opulent football graves but react to the fact that Benitez is beginning to surpass in futility his predecessor, Gérard Houllier.

What's most important? The finer feelings of a man who came into the game with eyes wide open about its inherent risks – let's not forget he served his apprenticeship at Real Madrid, where the life expectancy and working conditions of some coaches might be compared to that of the bulls regularly dragged out of the Plaza Monumental down the road – or the increasing reality that the job he tackled with some initial brilliance is quite relentlessly slipping beyond his grip?

Yes, Liverpool beat Manchester United before sliding to fresh defeats, but two facts leap out here. Benitez, like Houllier before him, has the knack of pulling out notable victories against United. However, and as also it was with Houllier, for every such triumph there are half a dozen performances which reveal both a desperate lack of developing rhythm and a critical shortage of players for whom mere adequacy is the most basic of starting points.

Benitez and Houllier have something else in common and it separates them, quite strikingly, from the managers who currently occupy the first three positions in the Premier League. Both fiends for rotation in their time, they have difficulties in granting players, who by the nature of their jobs are surely among the least secure members of the human race, the kind of public admiration on which confidence naturally feeds.

Houllier once said that Michael Owen, who had barely left his teens, had to grow up and be a man for Liverpool and for England. Benitez, whose reaction to a piece of virtuosity by one of his bare quorum of superstars is often to scribble a note or tell a full-back to adjust his position, may have had his own good reason to withdraw Fernando Torres from the latest misadventure at Craven Cottage but the look of befuddlement on his young compatriot's face was as eloquent as the great Roger Hunt's gesture when he threw down his shirt at the feet of Bill Shankly.

The big difference, of course, was that the football world was thunderstruck by such a rare show of disrespect. Benitez, of course, shuffles his ranks as though he is in charge of shelf stackers at the local supermarket.

Shankly was like his great contemporaries Sir Matt Busby, Don Revie and Jock Stein. He stayed up nights dreaming up new ways to extol the virtues of his key players. Ron Yeats was thus a colossus and Ian St John would have been the middleweight champion of the world had he chosen boxing instead of football. They didn't entirely believe him but it certainly made them feel a whole lot better than Torres when he trooped back to the touchline last weekend.

Busby's most elaborate team talks rarely stretched much beyond the formal exhortation to "fizz it about a bit" but then he once confessed there was a time when he was so relaxed about the talent at his disposal he would take a nip of scotch and go to his directors' box seat with a blissful equanimity. Different days, you will say, but not entirely. Carlo Ancelotti reminded us of this when he rhapsodised the brilliant intuition of Nicolas Anelka and the "unselfish" acumen of Deco after the destruction wrought at Bolton at the weekend.

Some of us thought that Ancelotti had put his head in a noose when he arrived at Chelsea, a club which in some ways is quite as dysfunctional as Liverpool. Unable to make the signings he might have believed were vitally necessary to freshen an ageing squad, at the mercy of a command system which mocked the classic structure of a winning club at the top of English football, the Italian looked like the potential victim of an ambush waiting to accompany the first run of bad results – or signs of disaffection in dressing-room titans John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.

Yet despite pratfalls at Wigan and Villa Park, Ancelotti's progress could scarcely be more serene. At the weekend the team hummed with efficient relish and some fine individual performance. Plainly, Ancelotti had made the pact with his players he suggested he would after that very bad afternoon at Wigan. Then, he said, "I've been very pleased with the response of the players since I arrived and the one thing we cannot do is make a drama of this defeat. These things happen in football. The important thing is to have faith in players who have done well."

In their different ways Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger practise the same principles, albeit sometimes to a fault. What the players at Old Trafford and the Emirates are encouraged to believe is that they are there because they have already proved their ability. Clearly, the importance of trust is recognised.

The problem at Anfield is that the culture of respect has been so dissipated both by the style of Benitez and the increasingly transparent fact that he has simply failed to assemble enough players of the required quality to form a seriously competitive squad. However you grade Robbie Keane's ability, his stay at Liverpool was a travesty of the coach-player relationship. The defection of Xabi Alonso, nobody argues, had similar roots, and now it seems another bulwark against creeping mediocrity, Javier Mascherano – by some distance the best defensive midfielder at the 2006 World Cup – seems to be suffering a severe case of dwindling intensity.

Meanwhile, the faithful now look to another transforming miracle, this time in Lyons. However, all but the most devout must wonder how many candles are left in the box.

Passion play of Yeung fuels Blues' dream

Carson Yeung may prove an unmitigated disaster as the new owner of Birmingham City and it certainly cannot be reassuring for incumbent manager Alex McLeish to see Steve McManaman attached so closely to his shoulder.

Yet no one could have been more engagingly involved in the team's dogged effort to cast doubt on Manchester City's £200m project.

Here was an owner who not only refused to play the role of the absent landlord but seemed to inhale every moment of the action. Comically expressive at times, he looked like a man who saw the Blues of Birmingham as something more than another item in his investment portfolio. Indeed, preliminary evidence suggests that he was consumed by something like instant passion. Time will tell, of course, but for the moment it was certainly agreeable to see someone in the front row of the directors' box who seemed to have something more on his mind than the numbers.

There were times, indeed, when you could easily have mistaken him for an impeccably behaved if rather excitable fan. Quaint, true, but who knows, possibly encouraging.

Wisdom of the crowds tells us that size always matters

Full marks to Piers Morgan, former newspaper editor and now a TV celebrity guru and sports columnist, for so manfully trying to get into the rather complicated head of Andre Agassi.

He tells us: "In my new life as a 'TV personality' I've been exposed to some of the peculiarly unique pressure that comes with performing to live audiences all the time. I've never kicked a ball in front of 100,000 screaming people at Wembley, played a tiebreak in the cauldron of New York's Flushing Meadows or fought Mike Tyson as a Las Vegas mob bayed for my blood.

"But I do regularly try to entertain live crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 around Britain and America with millions more watching at home. So I have had a very small taste of what the Agassis [and Tyson opponents, presumably] of the sporting world must experience."

The question is, Piers, how small is small? I think we might find a pinhead comfortably spacious as the receptacle for this particular body of relevant experience. It is a view only partly formed by the fact that I once shared, alone, the company of Tyson in a Las Vegas lift behaving erratically enough to provoke a swipe of fury from the great champion.