It is an FA Cup final to savour today, between two clubs who cherish its place in their history, and two managers who deserve our attention. It took English football a while to convert Benitez to the awkward charm of a competition that kicks off, for the top clubs, in January and coincided last year with a bothersome period in his first Premiership season. As his under-strength team threw it away then on a dank third-round night in Burnley you had to wonder if he would ever learn. Against Chelsea in April's semi-final, you knew that he had.
Alan Pardew, on the other hand, does not need teaching about the FA Cup. The clubs for whom Pardew has played in the FA Cup's humble preliminary rounds were so obscure, you had to check the spelling. He is a veteran of teams like Banstead and Whyteleafe and when he walks out at the Millennium Stadium today he will be one of the few in the ground who has seen this competition from the other, distant end, from the qualifiers played around this country in August, nine months and four seasons away from the May final.
Pardew's attitude towards the FA Cup has proved one of the most admirable aspects of his approach to the season. At last, a young English manager who actually seems to want to win the thing. Instead of obsessing about creeping one place up the Premiership, or worrying about whether 50 points will be enough for a top-10 finish, Pardew has set his sights on something much more tangible: a cup final, maybe a trophy and possibly a day the supporters will never forget.
Pardew has realised that you do not get an open-top bus ride and streets full of flag-waving fans for clinching the Premiership's last Uefa Cup place (although West Ham have already qualified for that competition). Real glory in football is days like these. In the topsy-turvy new world of English football, where the fourth-placed side can be the European champions and even the Carling Cup is suddenly back in vogue, so the FA Cup appears to have risen again.
Benitez earned his FA Cup spurs with the victory over Chelsea in the semi-final at Old Trafford, a Cup tie played in all the best traditions. Frenetic, and with bad blood on both sides, even a player as detached as Xabi Alonso managed to lose his cool at times. The Spanish midfielder looks like he will, after all, be fit for the game, despite spraining ankle ligaments against Portsmouth last Sunday.
Liverpool reach the FA Cup final with 11 successive wins in all competitions, a club record, and yet this team is not expected to survive the summer intact. Benitez looks likely to bid for Charlton's Darren Bent, whose suitability the Liverpool manager has already checked with some of his senior players. So, too, Daniel Alves, Seville's ruthlessly efficient Brazilian right-back and possibly Jermain Defoe. Liverpool already have the Argentina central defender Gabriel Paletta, £2m from Banfield, and the Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez. Benitez has already won one final and lost another this year - the European Super Cup and the World Club Championship - although any foreign manager in England is inclined to find his English players, and his fans, indifferent to those kind of competitions. It was interesting to hear Benitez say that the World Club Championship defeat to São Paulo was the lowest moment of his season, a disappointment that would surely be trumped by defeat to West Ham.
The Liverpool manager has a video compilation of teams celebrating, cups being lifted and rousing moments of triumph that he often plays to his squad to set their competitive pulses racing. "I am not sure that will be necessary against West Ham if we sense the atmosphere from our supporters," Benitez said this week. Somewhere behind that habit of his for tugging his suit jacket round his stomach, and the bashful waves to his supporters, the fire that burns within Benitez is well hidden.
Not so Pardew, who can be expected to deliver a more colourful post-match interview whatever the result. Dean Ashton is likely to be fit to partner Marlon Harewood in attack although Matthew Etherington is not expected to be ready which means a place for Shaun Newton on the left or perhaps the right if Yossi Benayoun is switched across. Pardew also has to decide whether to play Anton Ferdinand at right-back against a resurgent Harry Kewell.
Pardew has made a point of emphasising Steven Gerrard's importance to Liverpool by suggesting that if he was to switch teams it would be West Ham who were the favourites. He has talked about the values of West Ham - "the eternal tryer, never giving in, fighting against the odds" - and how that is reflected in the lives and aspirations of the sort of people that follow his club. It is the kind of thing that plays well with the mawkish, occasionally cynical, West Ham following.
But Pardew also talked his way into a boxing analogy drawn deep from his knowledge of the sport. He described West Ham as the Thomas Hearns of the encounter, who, for those unfamiliar with the middleweight boxing stars of the 1980s, was a famed heavy puncher, nicknamed "The Hitman". The power of West Ham was evident in the energy with which they dispatched Middlesbrough and embodied nowhere more than in the match-winner that day, Harewood.
Liverpool, Pardew said, were Roberto Duran - and it was with good reason he made that comparison. The Panamanian fighter was a master of the feint but in Las Vegas on 15 June 1984 he walked straight into a punch from Hearns that put him on the canvas face first and out cold. Luis Garcia and Hayden Mullins' hissy exchange of slaps and prods in the Premiership last month had nothing on Hearns' right hand.
Benitez would no doubt balk at an analogy that involved fighting. But today's game feels like the raucous, high-stakes FA Cup final classics of the 1980s, never mind the middleweight title fights of that era, and a little trash-talking - as Hearns would no doubt describe it - does no one any harm.Reuse content