Benitez banks on the high tempo of Anfield

Liverpool know that aristocratic Milan can be beaten - and Rafa has just the gameplan
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The Independent Football

So, the manager Liverpool's arbiter-in-chief, Alan Hansen, condemned not long ago as having created, with his predecessor Gérard Houllier, "a conveyor belt of mediocrity" stands at the end of the production line with his side packaged, labelled and ready for inspection by Europe.

So, the manager Liverpool's arbiter-in-chief, Alan Hansen, condemned not long ago as having created, with his predecessor Gérard Houllier, "a conveyor belt of mediocrity" stands at the end of the production line with his side packaged, labelled and ready for inspection by Europe.

Rafael Benitez's galvanisation of Liverpool to their first "European Cup" final for 20 years vindicates, largely, if not completely - there is still the matter of that wretched domestic form to explain - the faith of the chairman, David Moores, and chief executive, Rick Parry. Equally satisfying will be the Damascene-like conversion of those doubters among the Anfield elders.

But can this largely Anglo-Spanish amalgam of players combine for one final thrust? Players such as Xabi Alonso and Djibril Cissé, who have only recently recovered from injury, and others like Djimi Traoré, who has been at times derided by the Kop but whose performances have been enhanced by Benitez's presence. They can, even if ration-ality informs us that Milan, the club founded by a British expat, ought to expose Benitez's team as one unworthy of occupying the same fervent theatre in Istanbul on Wednes-day night. Carlo Ancelotti's men are surely capable of brushing Liverpool aside with the disdain of a Sir Michael Gambon detecting an insolent young actor attempting to upstage him. Aren't they?

Just run your eyes down the cast list of the Rossoneri: the supreme executioner Andrei Shevchenko; the swift and inventive Kaka; Cafu and Kakha Kaladze, with their rapid sorties down the flanks; the ageless and, on his night, still peerless defender Paolo Maldini; and the World Cup- winning goalkeeper Dida.

Yet such an analysis ignores the fact that, in Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, John Arne Riise, Alonso and Cissé, Liverpool boast sufficient power, vision and dedication to the cause to disturb the presumed authority of Milan.

Perhaps, just as crucially, in Benitez's acceptance of his team being regarded as the more impoverished of the pair, he possesses a potent psychological weapon. Almost imperceptibly, they have advanced to this point without pretension. Why alter that approach now?

It may - no, make that would - have been entirely different if Chelsea had qualified and Jose Mourinho had dispatched howitzers of supreme self-confidence into the Turkish night sky. In contrast, Benitez remains a model of res- traint, prepared only to reflect on the role that may be played by the travelling faithful.

"People say there will be 35,000 [Liverpool] supporters there [at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium], almost the same as Anfield. They will be behind us and we will play with more confidence," Benitez says. "When you play here at Anfield with our supporters, you feel the players give 120 per cent. In another country, it is different. Maybe it will only be 110 per cent. I hope to see my team at the same high intensity as they have been [in Europe] at Anfield."

He still possesses a limited English vocabulary, but that at least ensures that Benitez doesn't stray into areas where a loose expression may rebound on him. He is a man whose emotions are only truly unchained within the confines of the training ground and on the touchline.

The technical area at Anfield measures 20ft 6in by 3ft 5in. Rafa the Gaffer has worn it nearly bare, pounding the turf to exhort his team. Even when just after the turn of the year his detractors turned on him vehemently, they could not deny the passion and suffering with which he invested his presence.

It is that evidence, and his acknowledged coaching aptitude honed under the tutelage of such men as Vicente del Bosque at his home-city club, Real Madrid, which has continued to endear him to the supporters and indeed, the Anfield old boys' mafia, who are never quite sure whether to come armed with a stiletto or bear a garland of roses.

While Liverpool's European constitution, under Benitez, has been strong, there has been a definite "no" vote on their domestic performances. They are a team so far adrift that they required an RNLI vessel at the ready; they are a team whose own failings, never mind Uefa's regulations, have brought about their absence - for now - from next season's Champions' League.

And yet it would churlish indeed to suggest that Benitez, given a horrendous sequence of injuries and a squad much of which he inherited, has not extracted the optimum from those at his disposal - even if at times Liverpool have done so with a conspicuous absence of adventure.

Which begs the question: which of Liverpool's guises will we witness in Istanbul? The one which savaged the Serie A champions Juventus in the first half-hour of the home leg? Or that which elected to hold Chelsea at bay for the majority of the second half that excruciating then euphoric night of 3 May?

The mighty Maldini, whose collection includes four Euro-pean Cup medals, declares that "caution is at the heart of their [Liverpool's] game", and it is certainly true that Benitez's European methodology is founded on a resolute rearguard. In Liverpool's 14 Euro-pean games this season they have conceded a mere seven goals. Nevertheless, his team are capable of tearing the jugular from their opponents, as they did against Juve at Anfield. Will their strategy be similar, in the knowledge that a limited PSV Eindhoven ensured an uncomfortable night for Milan in both legs of their semi-final?

"It's a possibility," says Benitez. "I have ideas. Maybe three ideas. I need to look at my players in training, and afterwards say, 'OK, this is the best idea for my team'. Sometimes people say, 'But Juventus beat them' or 'PSV played really well against them'. Yes, but that is PSV, that is Juventus. They are different teams to my team. I need to use my players to beat them."

You wouldn't wish to face Benitez across the poker table, and he and Ancelotti are already there, impassive, unblinking. The latter may be able to shuffle a potential winning hand from Shev-chenko, Hernan Crespo, Jon Dahl Tomasson and Filippo Inzaghi, but Milan are unlikely to take the game to Liverpool. Milan, according to Mour-inho, can be "treacherous", possessing the ability to score on the counterattack and "win without apparently having done anything to achieve it". He adds: "They mix work, aggressiveness and talent in [Gennaro] Gattuso, [Andrea] Pirlo and Kaka. They have super class in Shevchenko."

Shevchenko could be the catalyst for a Milan victory, but Benitez recognises that any attempt to neutralise the Ukrai- nian striker's presence could be futile. "Shevkenko is a key player for them, but they have so many. They have Tomasson, Inzaghi, or Crespo or Kaka," he says. "It is a big mistake to think about Shevchenko, only Shevchenko."

In his own studious way, Benitez clearly believes that in the shape of a Gerrard or an Alonso he possesses the personnel to make Ancelotti think. And think hard. It does not always take a manager's words to convey an impression of belief in his side. Logic may not support the Spaniard, but when has that had any relevance to this season's Champions' League?