James Lawton: Benitez mystery is only deepened by a vital victory
Wednesday 20 February 2008
The folklore of Liverpool football will always insist that Bill Shankly's team were betrayed in 1965 when dubious refereeing denied them a place in the European Cup final, but here last night it was Internazionale, the beneficiaries all those years ago in San Siro, who believed they were victims.
It was ironic that their misfortune may have saved the professional life of a successor to the man whose heart was broken all those years ago.
Reduced to 10 men in the first half, Internazionale submitted to a tide of Liverpool pressure when Dirk Kuyt, who for much of the match had seemed to represent the tactical impasse of a team that had lost its way, and Steven Gerrard scored in the last five minutes.
It means that Rafael Benitez is, yet again, back from the deepest crisis. How, his American owners must now ask, can you fire a man who has just beaten the masters of Italian football?
This was no expression of brilliant organisation but it did show an extraordinary capacity to survive under the fiercest pressure on a night when the question was as harsh as the climate. Could Benitez again ride to safety on the back of an extraordinary one-off performance? Plainly it wasn't beyond Benitez, even in the depth of what many see as his final crisis here, and the team he has been known to prepare with flawless tactical precision.
Three years ago they ambushed Juventus and if Internazionale have gone one way and Liverpool decidedly another since then, even Benitez's fiercest critics have not yet suggested he is danger of being pronounced a dunce in Europe.
No, not that, but certainly the coach of a team which so long after that ransacking of Juve still seems so far from any sense of itself ... and its key components. Back then in Benitez's first season, one of them seemed certain to be his compatriot Xabi Alonso, but last night Liverpool's most creative player was sitting on the bench while the good-hearted but profoundly pedestrian Kuyt operated wide and artlessly.
The dismissal of Zinedine Zidane's least favourite light conversationalist, Marco Materazzi (below), was an invitation to Benitez to launch something more in the way of direct action, with Kuyt giving way to Peter Crouch. But the one-man advantage seemed to be a dwindling asset by half-time as the Italians – or rather the mercenaries, Materazzi's distinctly harsh fate, after Fernando Torres went down under relatively light pressure, removing the one starting Italian from the game – regrouped in classic, bolted door fashion.
In their first reaction to the Materazzi blow, Inter showed the smooth efficiency you would expect of runaway leaders of Serie A – and at times something more, most notably when the Brazilian full-back Maicon took the ball away from Kuyt quite superbly after Gerrard, who had spent a considerable part of the first half sending in guileless free-kicks, delivered finally a moment of genuine menace. For Inter's coach, Roberto Mancini, it was a classic invitation to withstand siege – for Benitez, so soon after the wrenching humiliation inflicted by Barnsley, a potentially career-changing test of his powers of innovation.
They were not swiftly unveiled as Mancini added the weight of Patrick Vieira in an effort to lift some of the pressure. As it turned out, the old pillar of Arsenal did not bring instant reassurance, losing the ball to Torres, who required Julio Cesar to save brilliantly. Vieira then escaped punishment for a blatant handball as Gerrard threatened to engulf the Inter goal.
When Benitez introduced Crouch in the 64th minute, plainly another shoe had to drop, but it took eight minutes and then it appeared to the wrong one, Jermaine Pennant, an authentic wide player, replacing not Kuyt but the spasmodically dangerous Ryan Babel. However, the Dutchman who is so much part of the Benitez paradox delivered a breakthrough which an increasingly assured Inter defence had promised to prevent.
Gerrard's goal, which gives Liverpool such a superb opportunity to move dramatically again on a European Cup final, was extraordinary in that it seemed to be born of nothing more than a desperate need to apply pressure from wherever it could be dredged. It is idle to pretend this performance does any more than deepen the mystery of Rafa Benitez's Liverpool.
For much of the game they were without style or creativity. Alonso, the man who was going to be their passing inspiration three years ago, never stirred on the bench.
Instead, Liverpool poun-ded their way to a kind of redemption. Where they can go now is beyond most serious analysis. They are simply alive in the way they were in Istanbul before they pulled off a glorious and bewildering triumph. Benitez may yet, against all odds, still have a few improbable moves to make.
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