In just a dozen minutes last night the embattled Rafa Benitez was given a lesson that has held good through the football ages.
It was the gospel of the first manager of an English club to win the European Cup, Sir Matt Busby, and, as it blew in as strongly as the rising mistral, the old, softly uttered incantation of the man from Ayrshire went to the heart of the Liverpool manager's chances of winning his battle for survival under the gaze of the club's recently disenchanted American co-owner, George Gillett.
"Trust the talent, trust your players," Busby always said and last night Benitez emerged from the fog of recent confusions of purpose and tactics to do just that. The endless meddlings of rotation, the sense that little mattered in the grand plan of Anfield beyond the sometimes brilliant, but too often convoluted, thinking of the coach, were left outside the gates of the Stade Vlodrome.
Result: one of the most dramatic opening statements in an important European tie since Busby's triumvirate of Best, Law and Charlton ripped Benfica apart in Lisbon 30-odd years ago.
The power of Steven Gerrard and the matador finesse of Fernando Torres may not have touched the sublime heights reached by Best at the Estado da Luz but operating in the comfort zone of a secure and balanced 4-4-2, the Liverpool captain overpowered the Marseilles defence to win a stone-cold penalty that might also have brought a red card to the overmatched culprit Gaël Givet and Torres scored a goal of quite delicious precision.
Trust the talent, said Busby and, perhaps even at his perilous 11th hour, Benitez may just have heard the penny drop.
After the bite and the wonderful solidity supplied by Javier Mascherano in midfield of the first half the impact of that basic wisdom of playing your best players, in a settled formation, had become nothing less than thunderous just a few minutes after the interval. The extent of Marseilles' desperation was clear enough when Djbril Ciss, one of the French follies of Benitez's predecessor Grard Houllier, appeared, but by now Liverpool were operating in another zone of confidence, which was so far from the one they inhabited at Reading last Saturday night they might have discovered another game.
Dirk Kuyt, who for all his earnest virtues has made goalscoring seem the last word in improbability, was now scoring one so effortlessly he might have been turning a page of his morning newspaper.
Benitez, who reacted to the refusal of the referee to hand out a red card after that early, last-man assault on Gerrard, with a torrent of emotion that seemed to speak of a troubled state of mind and hair-trigger tension, had every reason to relax and, perhaps, even reflect on a crisis that many would say he had created as elaborately as any indecipherable game plan.
Before the game Benitez agreed that Liverpool were facing the equivalent of a final, but then he pointed out that in his charge the club had a tendency to win such sudden-death affairs. However, he hadn't exactly strolled on to easy street, and when you looked at the frailty of the French club's defence, and remembered the chaos that accompanied Liverpool's catastrophic opening performance in Istanbul against Beskitas, you could only ask why Liverpool had put themselves under such pressure ... and now, with Porto's win over Beskitas, faced more formidable opposition as second-placed group finishers, rather than the strolling potential champions they might have have looked at this point of the competition.
No doubt Benitez can expect an easier time when he meets his American masters later this week. Had he been ejected last night from the Champions League and its tidal flood of revenue, he would have been severely hard pushed to present himself as the owner of a master plan which lacked only the steadfast support of the money men. Professional sport does not work like this in the eyes of an American investor. Certain rules are beyond compromise. One of them is the maintenance of income, and against this the subtleties of "soccer" strategy scarcely register.
This is perhaps the other important lesson that has been on offer for Rafa Benitez these last few troubled weeks.
However, as Torres left the field the master of all he surveyed after 77 minutes, there was no question about the real meaning of this night for Benitez and his club. It was to underline the words of the old Scottish maestro. Trust your talent. Torres was playing his fifth straight game for Liverpool, and his contribution had been nothing less than devastating. You have to trust and nurture Torres, as Busby did the errant Best, because in the end they are the ones who win the games. They are worth a thousand carefully drawn game plans, and when you have them, you play them. It is what they do, what they want to do, and after such a night of triumph some might say even salvation Benitez ignores the old truth only at his extreme peril.Reuse content