James Lawton: Benitez makes 180-degree turn on rotation to square the circle
Thursday 13 March 2008
Could it really be that an old silver peseta has finally dropped and is now resonating with brilliant effect in the once cluttered head of Rafael Benitez?
The question is asked because beneath the surface there was something a little unfamiliar about Rafa's latest Champions League coup. This is true even though Tuesday's 3-0 aggregate defeat of the Italian champions Internazionale, who have again brushed aside all opposition in Serie A, had many of the Benitez hallmarks.
Most apparent, again, was the almost fiendish attention to tactical detail, something you could have put the mortgage on when the Liverpool manager rushed into the technical area to make the first of his adjustments the moment he saw how his opponents were lining up for the kick-off.
There was that same old frantic ambition to pull, minute by minute, every available string; the same old image of the relentless puppeteer.
Yet there was the new factor. It was that this was a European performance from Liverpool which didn't sail out of a clear blue sky. There was a pattern to it which had been growing sharply over the last few weeks. Though many, including Jamie Carragher, will take much convincing that Benitez's investment in the Slovakian central defender Martin Skrtel is going anywhere but the loss column, no one could deny that Liverpool's performance spoke of a clarity of purpose that had for long been elusive in Premier League action.
Could it just be that under extreme pressure for his job – and the likelihood that his position, failing another home run in the Champions League, would be quite untenable if Everton for a second time edged Liverpool out of the fourth qualifying place – Benitez has reassessed the value of rotation?
If it is so, Benitez's superb quality of tactical organisation may soon enough just have to be seen in another and much more flattering light.
Certainly it would be augmented – at last – by that classic foundation of every pre-Rafalite Liverpool success down the decades ... the confidence of a team who have been given reason to believe in each other – and vital familiarity when the pressure is racked up to an ultimate degree.
When you consider Fernando Torres' contribution to stabilising Liverpool in the league, and how easily he transferred that authority to San Siro with another killing goal, it is quite bizarre to remember how he was forced to ride the bench in those early-season weeks when Liverpool's title chances drained away so abjectly.
Ironically, Benitez's authoritarian tendency grows even as he hints that maybe he sees, finally, that you cannot endlessly juggle players from match to match and still expect ready-made coherence.
Xabi Alonso, Benitez's former favourite and playmaker-elect, was brusquely rejected when he tried to negotiate a compromise on his rival commitments to his wife's maternity ward and the challenge in Milan. Peter Crouch, the unorthodox talent Benitez embraced so successfully when he plucked him from Southampton, pays a high price for his reluctance to sign a new contract without any guarantees about his future on the field. Yet if there are rifts between the dressing room and the manager's office and the boardroom, on the field the sense is of a team who may have just have stumbled upon their version of the lost chord.
Internazionale's Patrick Vieira, who always saw Liverpool as marginal challengers when his professional imperative was to stiffen Arsenal in their battle with Manchester United, admitted that in the defeat of his team this week he saw new depths of experience and competitive character.
Said Vieira: "I think this showed how good the Premier League is now. It is a remarkable achievement to get four clubs into the quarter-finals but it is not really a surprise. The quality is there. Manchester United and Arsenal have shown their ability. Chelsea are very strong and Liverpool have the track record in Europe.
"Liverpool were tough opponents. I think they can go and win now. They have done it before and they know exactly what the competition is about at this stage. They are the most experienced of the teams left in the competition. They know how to get through these ties, they know how to win the European Cup. I think they are the team everyone else want to avoid in the quarter-final draw."
The fear, no doubt, is that Liverpool are now able to add to their brilliant record in the Champions League – one win, two finals in three years and a list of scalps that becomes more spectacular by the season – the growing threat of a team geared for something more than periodic ambushes.
Last weekend the most attentive Anfield-watchers were stunned when they saw the names of Torres and Steven Gerrard on the team sheet for the Newcastle game. Given the potentially season-defining, and economic importance, of the date at San Siro, the old Benitez would have been as likely to play his star men as send flowers to Jose Mourinho.
But then if Liverpool have suffered both on the field and on the terraces this season, unquestionably so has Benitez – and what is more likely to concentrate the mind of a proud man than the prospect of being cast aside, along with his fine strategies and large supply of self-belief?
Defeat at home to Barnsley may not have gone into the bones of the football man who some time ago made himself a course specialist in Europe's most glamorous knockout competition, but it does happen to be true that since that public relations disaster a compulsion to rotate appears to have gone into decline.
Liverpool had some anxious moments at San Siro, and they never threatened to light up the place as Arsenal had done a week earlier, but they did have those qualities noted by Vieira. They had the aura of a team who seemed to know what they were about. This is something you cannot generate from the technical area. It grows from game to game, win to win. It has, maybe, the potential to turn that silver peseta into the purest gold.
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