James Lawton: Benitez on side of angels in coaches' morality tale

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The Independent Online

In all the anticipation of the coming Champions' League duel between Chelsea and Liverpool, there is surely one natural centrepiece - the battle for midfield supremacy between Frank Lampard and no, not Steven Gerrard, but Xabi Alonso.

In all the anticipation of the coming Champions' League duel between Chelsea and Liverpool, there is surely one natural centrepiece - the battle for midfield supremacy between Frank Lampard and no, not Steven Gerrard, but Xabi Alonso.

Not the least of the achievements of Liverpool's splendid coach - and conspicuously warm human being - Rafael Benitez is that not once has he whinged about the outrageous bad luck that has dogged his team. He has taken it all, the good and the bad, and he has pressed on calmly, diligently.

But if you really press him, he will tell you the single most devastating moment of his brief time at Liverpool.

It came on New Year's Day, in a hard-fought battle with Chelsea, when Alonso's ankle was broken by a sliding tackle from Lampard. No one at Anfield has blamed the disaster on malice. Faulty technique may have been Lampard's worst crime, but Benitez is emphatic about the degree of the damage to his team's prospects.

"That was our worst blow," says Benitez softly. "It changed our season, though it is good that it didn't ruin it. Alonso is such an important player on the ball, and I cannot say how pleased I am to have him back."

Alonso was sensational in Italy this week, when you remembered he came to the game with just 45 minutes of playing time.

The Spaniard is the delight of the football cognoscenti. Lampard has been immense in the Premiership and the Champions' League. They will shape the play and the destiny of their teams over 180 minutes of huge importance to both their clubs. The possibilities make the mouth water. Lampard has force, Alonso beautiful sublety.

Only a little less intriguing is the collision of the coaches, Jose Mourinho and Benitez. Mourinho no doubt has brilliance, maybe even genius, but he has compromised himself terribly with his disgraceful behaviour and obsession with drawing attention to himself.

In his TV ad for American Express, he says how he likes to keep a step ahead. But he should guard against over-reaching himself. If this was a morality tale, there would be only one winner. No, not the Special One; the one who is quicker to celebrate his players than himself. In the end that might just make a difference. Certainly it is nice to think so.

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