James Lawton: Benitez lacks grace to admit wonder of winger's display

There is a sense of a man who believes in nothing so fervently as his own infallibility
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Rafa Benitez was withering enough about people like his Liverpool successor Roy Hodgson who, he insisted, couldn't see a black-garbed priest on top of a sugar mountain. He was, though, markedly a whole lot easier on himself for missing something that most of football this week saw rather more plainly than his image of a Reverend Tate & Lyle.

His failure to attend in any exceptional way, however futile it may have proved, to the looming threat of Gareth Bale this week was maybe his most bemusing decision since he started the 2005 Champions League final, which is always likely to be remembered as his greatest triumph, with Harry Kewell in the side and Dietmar Hamann on the bench.

Events, of course, turned folly into legend, Hamann influentially coming on in the second half which saw Liverpool wipe out a three-goal deficit, but five years on the man so widely praised for his tactical acumen still carries the power to befuddle even his warmest admirers.

It is true that in football, as elsewhere, you have to take the best and live with the rest and this certainly became an article of faith with the Anfield diehards who continued to declare their trust in Benitez long after most of the rest of the world saw that his time at Liverpool was heading for only one denouement: a cold admission that he had lost the dressing room and, to a large extent, much of his point.

Whether he will reinvent himself successfully with the European champions Internazionale is a question that no doubt can hardly be answered for some time.

In Italy he has already earned some applause for trying to open up the style of the team Jose Mourinho drove relentlessly to a remarkable treble last season, but inevitably that was somewhat muted yesterday in the wake of the failure to deal with Tottenham's adventurous football and, particularly, the extraordinary impact of Bale.

It was a defeat that was barely explained by the absence of two important players, goalkeeper Julio Cesar and Esteban Cambiasso and its implications could come to haunt the coach soon enough as he works to repair confidence in Inter's ability to recharge their defence of the titles of the Champions League and Serie A, in which they currently trail Lazio by four points.

In the meantime, though, it may be valid to consider a factor that could again prove crucial in any examination of Benitez's prospects. It is the suspicion that if the Spaniard's ego doesn't fill the world quite as Mourinho's does so unswervingly, it is still something that has never seemed quite so robust as in recent days.

His attacks on Hodgson have been feverish – and consistent with his track record over his final year or so at Anfield in their casting of himself as entirely a victim of difficult circumstances. There is, at least here, an overpowering sense of a man who has come to believe in nothing so fervently as his own infallibility.

There is another suspicion. It is that while Mourinho is far from slow to stress his own achievements, he also puts a huge investment into his ability to make players feel good about their own contributions, their standing – something that could hardly be said to be a Benitez hallmark.

Certainly, it was one of the keys to Mourinho's regimes at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and no doubt represents the central thrust of his work in Madrid. By comparison, Benitez often suggests distrust of even his most accomplished players, which was surely a destructive element in the failure of his relationship with Xabi Alonso, who was so vital to any sense that Liverpool had the ability to build serious momentum in the years that followed the Champions League "Miracle in Istanbul".

The coach's reaction to Bale's rampage was instructive. While one of the greatest of modern players, Luis Figo, shook his head in wonderment at such a dominant but also controlled performance, and one leading Italian newspaper declared, "Frightening Bale sweeps away Inter", Benitez bemoaned a too generous allocation of space. "We knew it would be difficult to stop him if he had space. He was running but he had the space and that was the difference."

But it was the difference from what? Presumably it was the possibility that an individual player might be so strong, might be so aware of all around him, and made so confident in his own ability, that he could make the defensive calculation of even a Mourinho, or his legendary Inter predecessor Helenio Herrera, seem nothing more than good intentions.

Benitez's intentions towards Bale, despite the young Welshman's astonishing impact in San Siro so recently, were not easy to identify. Maicon, voted the Champions League's best full-back after last year's campaign, found himself repeatedly alone and contemplating old age far earlier than he can ever have anticipated.

What Benitez might have had the grace to say was that there are some nights when the coach is obliged to throw away his notes and acknowledge that there was never a set of tactics equipped to prevail over the force of great performance. Maradona reminded the Germans of this in the 1986 World Cup, when the Argentine came into the game carrying menace some way beyond even that generated so remarkably by Bale in recent weeks. The Germans put their most able player, Lothär Matthaus, on Maradona and he did a brilliant job – except for the moment of blinding instinct which saw space and opportunity for a pass of disembowelling penetration.

Bale had more than a few such moments against Benitez's team and they were filled with so much force and vision that to suggest they were merely the result of negligence, of too much space too easily yielded, was ungenerous to the point of perverse.

No one is saying that Benitez is failing, at least not just yet, in the most hazardous footsteps of Mourinho.

He has players of outstanding competitive character, which is his greatest resource as his Italian honeymoon draws to a close. But it is also already clear enough he has to forget about Liverpool, edit out the strange riddles, and remember to get close to those players who have already proved they can win at the highest level – a lot closer, certainly, than he did to the problem of Gareth Bale.

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