James Lawton: There are no excuses for Benitez. He must accept the blame for Livepool's plight
If Benitez has any sense of responsibility, it appears he wouldn't admit to it even with the encouragement of thumbscrews
Tuesday 04 May 2010
If there is anything more forlorn at the end of this season than the plight of Liverpool Football Club it is surely the failure of Rafa Benitez to face reality. The reality, this is, of his own contribution to what even the most romantic of Anfield dreamers must now have a hard time seeing as anything other than an unvarnished disaster.
A fair number will no doubt prefer to follow Benitez's example and continue to lay all the blame on the disgraceful stewardship of American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. But if it is impossible to defend the Americans, what case is there really for the exoneration of Benitez?
Can we say that he used what money he had – nearly £300m of it over six years – to make telling long-term improvements through the team, that there was – but for the brief upsurge of last spring that seemed to die the moment Xabi Alonso packed his bags for Real Madrid – evidence of anything resembling serious development of a force to truly challenge Manchester United and Chelsea?
No, we can't. Not if we are honest, not if we refuse to cling to Benitez's Champions League triumph of 2005 as anything more than an extraordinary, even freakish triumph of a team which on the following dawn, their coach admitted, was in need of wholesale strengthening if they were to become authentic Premier League title contenders.
That challenge never materialised, not seriously, but this isn't the most critical judgement that can be made of Benitez as he waits to make it clear whether he will be moving to Juventus.
The real indictment is that in the years that followed victory in Istanbul he never provided convincing evidence that he had developed anything more than a formal, master-pupil relationship with his players. He seemed unwilling to give them his trust.
If Benitez has any sense of this, any twinge of personal responsibility, it appears to be something he probably wouldn't admit to even with the encouragement of thumbscrews.
Before Sunday's game with Chelsea, the one that almost certainly ensured the London club's first title in four years, he was asked for his assessment of the work of his rival Carlo Ancelotti, with whom he had disputed two Champions League finals, winning one and losing the other. What he offered was not a tribute but another piece of self-justification.
"He's doing well," said Benitez, "but it depends on the players. After spending big money Chelsea built a good team with [Claudio] Ranieri and [Jose] Mourinho – and those players are still there to allow them to compete."
Of course, it didn't depend on the players when Luiz Felipe Scolari, a World Cup winner who was summarily dismissed by Roman Abramovich when he failed to marshal the available talent. Is Benitez saying it depended on the players when he won his great victory in Istanbul – and the former coach Gérard Houllier had the nerve to enter the Liverpool dressing room and claim responsibility for a team which had progressively declined under his control?
You can't be the genius coach one day and the victim of players' deficiencies the next, which seems to be the latest Benitez proposition.
No one would discount the difficulties of running a team in a club that has become as dysfunctional as Liverpool, but we should remember that the dynamics of Benitez's job have not been changed essentially. No, his budget has never ranked with Chelsea's or United's, and still less Manchester City's these days, but it is a myth to say that he has not had the power to strengthen his team significantly.
The payroll has never been threatened and nor has Benitez been denied access to outstanding talent, as we saw when he moved wisely for Pepe Reina and Alonso, the value of the second signing only dissipating when it became clear that the manager could not build rapport with the most inspirational player at the club.
When he signed Javier Mascherano he was acquiring the outstanding defensive midfielder in the 2006 World Cup, which was a quaint relic of football history on Sunday when, as a makeshift full-back, the Argentine was so relentlessly outstripped by Salomon Kalou. Fernando Torres was a brilliant coup. Steven Gerrard was an inherited gift. Jamie Carragher embodied the ethos of Liverpool.
Then there is the dross, the mediocrity which has accumulated so steadily down the Benitez years. The signing of Alberto Aquilani, with his injury record and lack of current fitness, was in the circumstances of Alonso's departure arguably the most bizarre in the recent history of Premier League football. Ryan Babel is an £11m misfit. Robbie Keane was a £20m misadventure handled with a lack of finer feeling that was little short of grotesque.
"It depends on the players," says Benitez. Ultimately, it is true, but not before the right ones have been assembled, made into a real team and released to their full potential. This will always depend on the coach. It is a truth that Liverpool, whatever the plans of Rafa Benitez, have a duty to embrace quickly.
McIlroy looks the part but let's keep hype to a minimum
Rory McIlroy's last-round 62 to win his first American PGA tournament was a stunning achievement and confirmation that in the young Ulsterman British golf may have unearthed its most remarkable talent.
But if, two days before his 21st birthday, he drew new horizons for himself there is a solemn wish for him here today. It is that he is allowed to explore them with a minimum of hysteria.
That wasn't the fate of the teenaged Justin Rose when he produced an exquisite chip shot to finish fourth in the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale. Even someone as erudite as Royal and Ancient secretary Sir Michael Bonallack was caught in the euphoria, declaring, "We have found Britain's answer to Tiger Woods."
That was when the Tiger was best known as an outstanding golfer, which may call for a little perspective. Young Rory has still a little way to go. When Woods was 21 he won the US Masters – by 12 strokes.
Governing bodies should all follow Hearn's lead
Snooker has been plunged into an appalling scandal with the entrapment of world No 1 John Higgins by the News of the World.
But if the sport is recoiling in the face of filmed evidence suggesting Higgins was prepared to throw frames for the benefit of a betting coup, it was yesterday brilliantly served by Barry Hearn, the benefactor of Leyton Orient and chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association.
Hearn was invited to criticise the newspaper's methods. He declared the question irrelevant. Dwarfing everything, he said, was the need for honest sport. Every administrator should be sent a video of the Hearn performance.
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