James Lawton: Benitez's safe hands milk the Special One's muddle

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The Independent Online

Liverpool's second big victory over Jose Mourinho's Chelsea carried more caveats than an index of government health warnings but it still had the power to provoke some intriguing questions.

It asked simply this: when the long race is run, when the starting assets of Benitez and his now bitter rival are most clinically assessed, who will emerge as the better football man? Whose heart will be most firmly attached to the spirit of the game? Whose will and ability to get the best out of the players - which of course is the the very kernel of the job - will prove more enduring? Perhaps most importantly of all, who will have proved that he had the safer hands and the least susceptibility to the dangerous impulses of ego?

In the aftermath of Liverpool's arrival in their second straight major cup final - at the expense of Chelsea - there could only be one answer. Benitez, yet again, showed that he understood the fine margins between victory and defeat and that a coach who projects himself far above his players, who comes down from the mountain top before every match with his personally inscribed tablets of stone, is not only risking individual results but his own long-term credibility.

Mourinho's, plainly, will hold for some time. A small blizzard of Portuguese titles, the Uefa Cup and Champions' League with modestly resourced Porto, and successive titles with the financial behemoth Chelsea is an astonishing body of work for any 43-year-old football man.

But then Benitez, three years older, does not compare so unfavourably: two La Liga titles for Valencia, triumphs swept from beneath the noses of a Real Madrid some way still from their current decay and Barcelona; a Uefa Cup win; a quarter-final place in the Champions' League after ransacking Gérard Houllier's Liverpool, before leading his new club to the Champions' League in his first season and on a fraction of Mourinho's budget, also speaks of dazzling accomplishment.

But the questioning has to be refreshed now - two years into their English careers, Mourinho and Benitez have developed a fierce rivalry made all the more remarkable by the imbalance of their resources, and any snap appraisal at the weekend would surely have left few in doubt about who was more comfortable in his own skin.

It says almost everything about what we have come to know of Mourinho that nothing he did before, during and after Chelsea's FA Cup semi-final had the capacity to create too much surprise.

His lack of grace, expressed on this occasion by his refusal to shake the hand of the victorious Benitez, has become a fact of football life. Nor could his bizarre team selection have raised too many eyebrows; leaving out all three of his three most creative wide players, and denying a fourth, the hugely expensive but lost Shaun Wright-Phillips, a place on the bench, was certainly bewildering, as was the sight of a full-back, Paulo Ferreira, playing in front of a midfielder, Geremi... but then so was his decision to play three of them from the start in Barcelona recently. That was a move which robbed Chelsea of their greatest strength, a formidably balanced midfield, and before Saturday's aberration seemed to have crowned a spurt of increasingly erratic behaviour.

Naturally, Mourinho blamed defeat not on this team-sheet gibberish but the bad aroma of two of the decisions that the referee, Graham Poll, made in favour of Liverpool and, according to some unbiased professional observers, breaking an astonishing tendency to rule routinely for Chelsea in anything that sniffed of 50-50. No, Mourinho was emphatic, this was another mythical defeat of Chelsea by Liverpool.

Benitez, typically, refused to comment on Mourinho's team selection, other than in the most oblique way. However, he did say: "I was surprised by the things Mourinho said." Was he disappointed? "No, I was doing my job before the game, playing to win. I had two plans depending on how they came into the game: they could play with three strikers, 4-5-1 as normally, or with two centre-forwards. We had plans for that.

"For 60 minutes we had a fantastic game against good players. When you see [Arjen] Robben, [Damien] Duff and [Joe] Cole on the bench you know how strong they are. We are closer to Chelsea now. If you talk about one game with them we can win. If you talk about nine months we need a bigger squad.

"I like to win against the best teams. Chelsea are one of the best teams in the world. We must give credit to our players and our staff. We must be happy.

"They brought on Cole, Duff and Robben. They can change everything. We don't have the same possibilities. We change some things, they can change everything. They can play three strikers, quick, with ability, good in the air."

In other words, Mourinho could do what he wanted. He could line up his solders any way he pleased.

Benitez's job of countering any Chelsea formation, interestingly, relied not on wild theory but accepted strengths. His team was freely predicted before the game; the question was how well they would perform, a challenge uncomplicated by the need to play in unfamiliar positions and instantly find old zones of comfort and confidence.

Extraordinarily, with the exception of the stalwarts Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, and Steve Finnan and Harry Kewell - a wide player reminding Mourinho of the value of skill applied at pace - Liverpool were quite some way from their best. Steven Gerrard was anonymous for long passages of the game. Xabi Alonso was disappointingly peripheral at that time when Chelsea, at last provided with some width and skill by Mourinho, came surging back into the game, and if Momo Sissoko had been any more profligate with the ball at his feet he might as well have worn a blue shirt. Luis Garcia was himself, which is to say about as economical as Wayne Rooney's girlfriend let loose in Knightsbridge or Oxford Street. But then he conjured a goal touched by genius.

But Benitez's hands were indeed safer. He didn't burden his players with an unworkable game plan. He didn't offer an astonished opposition a huge start into the game. In future he will want better performances from key players, but there was a unity of purpose to Liverpool's effort.

By comparison, Chelsea had to grope their way into the match. They had to wade through their coach's ego.

In the first rush of his fame as a coach Mourinho, for whom the challenge of playing professionally was too much, said: "I hate to speak about players individually; players do not win trophies, squads win trophies. I cannot say I love a player. I love players who love to win." You cannot imagine Benitez saying such a thing, no more than you could any of the great coaches, however far you go back. Squads don't win trophies until they have been formed into teams of fine balance and well-distributed talent. You cannot win trophies by sticking a pin into a list of players.

Maybe that's not quite how the Special One arrived at his team on Saturday.

Maybe he did something rather more scientific. Unfortunately, the effect was roughly the same.

Mourinho or Benitez? You have to take your choice. For the moment at least it is not something to tax the brain - and still less the heart.

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