Benitez calls for courage and calm

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The Independent Online

Liverpool's Spanish manager had a point of some philosophical weight to make here on the eve of the 50th European Cup final. Change in football, said Rafael Benitez, is as it is in life - todo y nada, everything and nothing.

Liverpool's Spanish manager had a point of some philosophical weight to make here on the eve of the 50th European Cup final. Change in football, said Rafael Benitez, is as it is in life - todo y nada, everything and nothing.

All is change but some things are always the same, and the most basic of these will decide if Liverpool can startle the football world with victory over Milan tonight. It is nothing to do with anything either Benitez or Milan's Carlo Ancelotti scrawls on a blackboard in the last hours of their exhaustive preparations - nor the possibilities of tactical deadlock which many here are placing so high. It is about the hearts and minds of footballers. Can they go the distance? Can they hold their nerve?

Benitez believes that his can, and his last words before they go out on to the field at the big but soulless Ataturk Olympic Stadium will echo the speech that his predecessor Bill Shankly made before every match. "I will say," Benitez declared, "Enjoy the game, you know what you have to do - do it."

Enjoy? It is not a word you associate with the upper strata of European football - or, judging by the Arsenal approach to last weekend's Cup final, England's. But there is something about the demeanour of Benitez that gives his words more than a little ballast.

He said something else yesterday - and this raised eyebrows. However, it also made you think about the preconceptions that have created the odds that put Milan heavy favourites at 1-2, with Liverpool 6-4.

Benitez said that Liverpool had not been practising penalties - not like Arsenal, who were so beautifully poised on the spot in their shoot-out, or Argentina, who knocked England out of the 1998 World Cup and forced the sheepish confession that their opponents had no idea who were going to take the penalties at the end of extra time.

Benitez's explanation was brisk, almost dismissive. You cannot practice a penalty shoot-out in training, he said. You cannot reproduce the pressure. So much better, he implied, to concentrate on winning the match, whether it takes 90 or 120 minutes. "People talk about style," he said, "but the most important thing in football is to play to your strengths, take every advantage you can. If we do that we will please our supporters - and of course we will be looking to score goals."

The declaration offers the hope that tonight we will not see one of the most passive games of football played at this level since Red Star Belgrade carried off the trophy in Bari 14 years ago.

The Serbian team won the penalty shoot-out after 120 goalless minutes against a talented Marseilles team. It had happened twice before, when Terry Venables' Barcelona were dragged down by Steaua Bucharest in Seville in 1986 and then two years later in Stuttgart, where PSV Eindhoven overcame Benfica. But in Bari we saw the ultimate breakdown of football as a beautifully pitched contest. The Belgrade coach admitted that his team had been playing for penalties from the start. "What else could we do?" he asked. "We knew they had the better players."

It was an unashamed admission of football bankruptcy and it is bleak to think of where the game might have gone but for a brilliant renaissance at Ajax before their players were plundered by Spain and Italy - and the inexorable rise of the Milan of Gullit, Van Basten and Baresi.

Now there is the fear that we are at full circle; that the ageing guardians of that Milan tradition, magnificently seasoned but surely wearying players like Paolo Maldini, Cafu and Clarence Seedorf, will try to eke out their experience like misers and hope for a killing break-out by Andrei Shevchenko or Hernan Crespo - and that in the face of such threat, Liverpool will produce something resembling a football tank trap.

This is the received wisdom, but there must be a suspicion that it is flawed.

If Benitez is true to his word, if he believes the evidence of his eyes that Milan were exposed at the back by PSV Eindhoven in the semi-final second leg, why would he sit back and invite the ravages of Shevchenko and the creative impulses of Kaka? Would it not be better to apply some pressure of his own? No doubt it is true, as Benitez said, that Eindhoven and Liverpool are teams of different strengths, but he hit Juventus and Chelsea - respectively the champions of Italy and England - hard enough in the first minutes of the Anfield matches.

Yesterday Maldini and Seedorf and their coach, Ancelotti, faced the media of Europe with the poise you would expect of serial winners. Maldini, who the older he gets seems an ever more viable candidate for the leading role in a remake of La Dolce Vita, said that he was feeling "serene". It was important for a team like Milan to display a certain style, but of course the main thing was to win. Ancelotti and Seedorf nodded. The Italian consensus was not a cowering one. They would win pretty or ugly, but they would win.

Liverpool, represented by Benitez, his compatriot Xabi Alonso and Sami Hyypia were an altogether more modest bunch. But they hadn't come this far, they pointed out, to kneel before the might of Milan.

Of course, Milan's more recent past is filled with a much greater grandeur. Liverpool last won this prize 21 years ago but if Milan have done it four times since then, was their last triumph, two years ago, at Old Trafford, something that still crowds the memory? No, it was a goalless trek to a shoot-out, another essay in Italian caution that went back to before the days the nation so brilliantly counter-attacked to win the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Then, the winning manager, Enzo Bearzot, was said to have released "the caged bird of Italian football". And were Milan flying strongly against Eindhoven last month? Hardly. They looked like time-expired heroes, as they did when virtually surrendering the Italian title with a loss to Juventus a few weeks ago. Relaxing after that defeat and fielding a reserve team against Palermo was said to be a pragmatic decision, but such a compromise can seep into the bones.

In Europe, at least, Liverpool's form guide has been impeccable. Apart from injuries, their Premiership lapses, said Hyypia, were to do with so many of their players acquainting themselves with the demands of the Premiership, the running from goal to goal, the willingness to give up the ball in the certainty that you would get it back soon enough. Things would be different next season.

Next season? For the moment, as Benitez pointed out, it does not exist. "This is my most important match. It is the same for my players. I know we can do it - yes, we can win."

How will it happen? Here is one possibility, early in the game. Alonso, the surgical passer, sees Steven Gerrard making still another run at Milan's ageing and recently jittery defence. He plays in the killer ball and suddenly Milan, legitimate favourites in the wealth of their background and the cutting edge of Shevchenko, have to come down from their mountain top. Their skill and knowledge is not in question, but now it is a question of fresh courage and new energy.

Some things indeed never change and this is one of them. Liverpool have enough of that courage and, as Chelsea and Juventus both know, a ferocious hunger too. It is why I take them to win.

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