James Lawton: Benitez's tinkering has heads spinning and Anfield legends breaking ranks

The belief in the need for a basic foundation has been abandoned almost utterly
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The Independent Football

Why is it that in these days of stress for Rafa Benitez there is an overwhelming urge to serenade him along the lines of the Billy Joel classic: "Don't go changing, I love you just the way you are?"

It is quite possibly because he is arguably, and by some distance, the most naturally decent man operating in the upper echelons of big-time football. Beyond his winning and his losing, there are extraordinary qualities of honesty and humility in someone who over the last few years has annexed two Spanish titles and the Uefa Cup with Valencia and the Champions' League and FA Cup with Liverpool.

Nice guys are not supposed to be serial winners, and they rarely are. The same is true of slavish practitioners of rotation and even Benitez's warmest admirers must fear this particular addiction is reaching destructive levels.

Old Anfield legend Tommy Smith has already broken ranks and joined the column of critics, one of whom announced on a Merseyside radio station this week that the Liverpool manager is "out of his depth". The Smith defection is particularly worrying for those in the Benitez camp who remember that no one marshalled opposition to his predecessor Gérard Houllier more bitingly than Smith's illustrious team-mate Ian St John.

There are other troubling signs. Even Peter Crouch, the man Benitez brought to Liverpool on tides of mirth that became, for a while, a national joke, is getting fretful, making clear his belief that his winning goal in Bordeaux in midweek should have been enough to ensure his selection for tomorrow's critical visit to Old Trafford. In Manchester Benitez is exposed to a potential ambush of damaging statistics. One is already a near certainty with the expected return of Steven Gerrard, which will mean that for a 97th consecutive time Liverpool go into a game with a changed team. Should Liverpool go down Benitez will be the first Anfield manager to lose three consecutive league games at Old Trafford since Don Welsh suffered the fate 53 years ago.

Though United's Sir Alex Ferguson, who was perhaps also showing signs of being effected by Benitez's unforced charm and consistent honesty, defended his rival's meddling tendency with a robust justification of rotation, there is no doubt that the case against an excessive employment of the policy is mounting by the week.

Both Ferguson and Chelsea's Jose Mourinho practice rotation, which in both cases is generally expressed in a willingness to rest key players at congested points in the season. But neither of them operate on Benitez's scale. They keep their defence together as frequently as they can. They have a hard core of a team.

This belief in the need for a basic foundation has been abandoned almost utterly by Benitez this season. Ground was lost in the opening game against Sheffield United when a patchwork team was fielded after an impressive curtain-raising victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield game. Momentum was surrendered almost instantly in a 1-1 draw and now defeat for Liverpool this weekend, and a Chelsea triumph, would mean that the joint Premiership leaders had opened up an 11-point gap, a chasm which it is hard to believe could possibly be closed.

An astonishing contradiction is implied in Benitez's approach. It is that this least arrogant of men believes he can move players around like toy shoulders, who can come alive instantly in response to his will. The pressure of modern football may make a degree of rotation inevitable but the majority of pros hate it. Fighters fight, jockeys ride, and footballers' play. It is the heart of their existence, however extravagantly they are rewarded for kicking their heels.

Benitez has a theory that the Premiership is a marathon which can only be won by a careful hoarding of fitness and appetite. He believes his team will this season display a finishing power beyond that of any of his rivals. But then will Liverpool still be in touch. Will the horse still be in the same county when the stable doors are closed? "Don't go changing" has always been a staple of team building and for the most impeccable of reasons.

The mistakes of one game can only be fixed and remedied in the next one if pretty much the same personnel are involved. A minute on the field of action is worth many hours on the training pitch.

But then how do you lecture a football man who already has a body of work which would send a huge majority of his profession happy to meet their rewards? How do you second guess a guy who has pulled the wagons into the circle more regularly, and more effectively, than anyone since John Wayne? Only with difficulty and with a degree of humility.

For one thing you have to remember a rain-lashed Saturday afternoon in Newcastle two seasons ago, when Benitez had lost his hugely influential new signing Xabi Alonso, and Gerrard had still to be turned into a talented player of more consistent impact. Liverpool played poorly and in a few days time they would face Juventus. Could Liverpool possibly challenge the Italian giants? "Of course," said Benitez. "In football there is always something you can do. Yes, we can beat Juventus and we can be champions of Europe. You have to believe in your players ­ and you have to believe in yourself."

Benitez was sufficiently as good as his word to earn some passionate support in this week's spiralling and increasingly heated debate. The caller who charged Benitez with being out of his depth was followed immediately by one who proclaimed him a genius. Genius, like beauty, of course so often resides solely in the eyes of the beholder. Benitez's case is somewhat more complicated. He has carried Liverpool so far beyond the churning tank tracks of the reign of Houllier, who has again been insisting, preposterously, that it was his triumph in Istanbul and not Benitez's.

With such enemies, Benitez is scarcely in need of friends. However, and inevitably, he is not short of the latter. It just happens that most of them are currently singing from Billy Joel's song sheet.

Rose ready for release from burden of expectation

Maybe, finally Justin Rose will come good as he attempts to build on the uplift of his thrilling round of 60 on the American PGA tour in Florida this week.

Heaven knows, the talent has always been visible, spurting in great bursts of virtuosity, then subsiding.

His performance in the 1998 Open, when as a 17-year-old he finished fourth after a dramatic birdie from the 18th fairway, was a glorious but also disturbing story.

He was rushed into the professional game and suffered torture by a stream of missed cuts. In the process you could only be left askance by the absurdity of the hype which followed his Open showing, not least that generated by Michael Bonallack, the head of the Royal and Ancient no less.

In the wake of Rose's spectacular finish Bonallack had declared: "This boy is Britain's answer to Tiger Woods."

Under that burden Rose has suffered down the years. But beneath a blue Florida sky he showed how it might have been. More importantly, how it still might be. Whatever the consequences, Rose deserved his day in the sun. He elected himself to the long, hard game and now he may at last be close to gaining his reward.

Harmison in need of some Australian consistency

Steve Harmison, who was knocked for 20 in one over in England's disastrous nose-dive in the Champions Trophy, now says he will be firing on all cylinders in the sudden death collision with Australia. He has talked himself into the challenge ­ one which he believes could have a huge psychological bearing on the coming Ashes struggle.

Harmison was, of course, a vital factor in the Ashes success of 2005 but his career seems to be spent on one long journey between the hubris of success and the anguish of failure. Great players tend to operate on rather more of an even keel. Certainly it has been the pattern of Australian success over the years.

They have their internal rows, as we have seen recently, but when it comes to play they arrive at a fierce unity. It is built on the belief that every day you play, you face a new and searching test. You don't talk yourself into the right mood. You inhabit it.

It is why holding on to the Ashes this winter will no doubt prove roughly three times harder than winning them once in the best part of 20 years.

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