James Lawton: Flawed puppeteer Benitez loses grip of Anfield strings and hold of football reality

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The Independent Online

Something has to give at Liverpool. Indeed, there is some evidence that it has already happened and that it is Rafa Benitez's hold on some of football's most basic realities.

He is a good man with some impeccable, even brilliant qualities, but there are also flaws which make it increasingly improbable that even a convincing victory tonight over the aristocrats of Italian football, Internazionale, will do much more than prolong what is becoming an agony.

Certainly, Benitez should know better than most the folly of believing his Champions League triumph in Istanbul still bestows the job security of a senior civil servant. Yet still he clings to a remarkable but ageing victory, all the time failing to grasp that football, no more than any other competitive business, has never asked, "What did you do for me three years ago?"

No, the game will always be concerned with today and tomorrow, a truth the Liverpool manager ignored when he declared, on the day he lost to Barnsley: "I don't know too many managers who have won the European Cup."

As a Madrileno, he surely cannot have forgotten Vicente del Bosque, the taciturn man from Salamanca who won European club football's greatest prize not once but twice – yet still found himself sacked by Real Madrid just a year after his second triumph.

Perhaps Benitez, for the sake of his peace of mind, has indeed expunged from his memory that staggering piece of injustice inflicted on a manager who had also collected Real's 28th and 29th Spanish league titles.

The brutal truth is that Benitez, with ever diminishing success, appears to have been attempting to impose his own increasingly bizarre version of reality. The more emphatic he becomes in his self-belief, the further his team seems to slip away. But then let's be honest. It is not a team. It is an assortment, a series of options, none of which has encouraged the fundamental ambition of every great manager – a sense of growth.

Benitez's predecessor Bill Shankly never won a European Cup but he did lay down the principles of an empire which, at one point, gathered it in as though it was not a challenge but a right.

Shankly once climbed on to the table in his little office under the main stand, clenched his fists and said of emerging young players: "One day this team is going to go off like a bloody bomb in the sky."

Shankly signed players like St John and Yeats and Hughes and nurtured Tommy Smith and made them gods. Benitez doesn't make gods – he makes squad members and bench warmers to be deployed when the fancy takes him.

He has been trying to win while ignoring the most basic aspect of building a winning team. However many winners of Europe's top prize Benitez does know, he has clearly failed to see an instinct that links them all, from Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein to Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson.

It is the drive to fashion a team rather than a collection of pieces that can be fitted, at will, into some kind of endless jigsaw puzzle. Benitez believes in the ever shifting jigsaw game. He has made rotation a personal creed, supported by nothing more substantial than a belief in his own powers to play the master puppeteer. The result was shocking against Barnsley. It ran far deeper than the unrest of the fans. The body language of the team announced dismay even before Jamie Carragher, a bulwark of central defence who was recently asked to play at right-back, went public with his belief that the team is just not good enough.

Hearing the comments of the zealous Carragher brought a specially biting sadness for anyone who was around on that Istanbul dawn when Benitez so impressively outlined his plans for Liverpool's future.

As Steven Gerrard paraded around the team hotel with his medal on his chest, Benitez said that this was merely a downpayment on future glory. There would be new players fitting into a grand plan.

Grand plan – or egotistical fragments? Benitez's ego is not expressed in his manner. Indeed, he can be a man of great charm and this was never more apparent than when he was knocking Mourinho out of the Champions League. Mourinho raged at the injustices of the world. Benitez talked coolly, and with great civility, about his hopes for the development of his team.

The problem is increasingly plain. There has been no development. Some tactical triumphs, no doubt. But no evolution. Benitez juggles his players without the merest acknowledgement of another school of thought, which points out that every great team has thrived on familiarity and mutual respect in the dressing room.

When Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles became the only Englishmen to win both the World Cup and European Cup (in the space of two years), they did it while playing more than 60 games a season, most often on pitches which the modern player would dismiss as so many ploughed fields. Shankly made a change in his team as a last resort rather than a first instinct. He won a title with 13 players.

Yes, we know times change, along with diets and scientific input and equipment, but some things are eternal.

One of them is the need of a professional footballer to feel secure in his role – and his ability. That can only be reinforced by seeing his name on the team sheet. Fighters fight and footballers play football, even if they are rich beyond most dreams.

Rafa Benitez doesn't even pay lip service to such a well established notion – or the trust in his players displayed by Busby when he poured himself a nip of pre-match Scotch and took his place in the stands and confided his feeling of unassailable confidence.

Liverpool now have to count the consequences. Most discouragingly, they include the breaking voice of Jamie Carragher and his manager's desperate belief that a great club once familiar with serial success can be sustained by not much more than an old deposit made in the bank of Istanbul.

Nani needs to look to Zola and learn how to behave

We don't know if Sir Alex Ferguson invoked the name of Gianfranco Zola when he chastised his player Nani for his taunting of Arsenal at the weekend, but there was a very good chance.

Ferguson may at times be vehemently partisan in his view of football, but one of his many redemptions is his fierce belief in how the game is best portrayed. In this the little man from Sardinia figures extremely highly in his regard. "I love everything about the guy's approach to football," he once said. "I love his talent, his courage and his nerve but, most of all, I love the way he carries himself on the field, how he respects the game and his opponents. It is an example that every young footballer should be proud to follow. Zola is good – and he is fair."

Nani had some luminous moments at the weekend and many have said, with some justice, that Arsenal's performance was not one that was likely to engender much respect. But Nani crossed a line in the way that Gianfranco Zola would never have contemplated. In reprimanding one of his star players, Ferguson asserted the best of himself – and football.

After sigh of relief, now hold your breath for Kauto Star

Perhaps not since the venerable doctor Lord Moran posted optimistic bulletins on the health of Sir Winston Churchill had a sizeable part of the nation been so relieved. Such is the affection which pours out to Kauto Star – and the relief that he is well.

The possibility that he had seriously injured himself – and would not be able to compete against his brilliant stablemate Denman for the Cheltenham Gold Cup – created a fear of crushing disappointment rare in any sport.

Where do we go for comparisons? Not many places, in all honesty; perhaps the scratching of Tiger Woods from the Open field or Roger Federer from Wimbledon. When Wayne Rooney is missing from the team sheet there is always a gust of disappointment.

Cheltenham is a recurring glory of the sports calendar because there is always the courage of beautiful horses. This year it is specially thrilling because Kauto Star may well be required to produce an ultimate example of great performance.

After the scare, we have even greater expectation. A treasure of the year has been restored.

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