Benitez rues lack of influence over daily grind
Saturday 23 February 2008
After the euphoria, a return to the harsher realities of the struggle for fourth place in the Premier League, which underpins the flimsy financial entity that is Liverpool FC. The Arab financiers seeking to buy out Tom Hicks and George Gillett suspect that the Americans might struggle with their debt repayments if denied the £15m which comes with Champions League qualification, but Rafael Benitez, the manager tasked with delivering that money by beating the likes of today's visitors Middlesbrough, conceded yesterday that he has never – and will never – find tactics of as much use to him in the Premier League as he does in Europe.
Benitez revealed after Tuesday's win over Internazionale that it was more "difficult to influence the game with tactics" in the Premier League.
Yesterday he elaborated on that point, insisting that he was resigned to the fact that players, rather than tactics, influenced games like today's.
"In Europe tactically you do a lot of things, in the Premier League you cannot because it's a different style of football," he said. Would that change over time? "No," he said.
Then Benitez returned to a theme he last picked up before Liverpool's trip to the Riverside for a 1-1 draw last month – the club's record 82 points under his management in 2005/6. "We can do it," he said. But this was delusional. Liverpool must win all their remaining 13 games to pass that figure.
If further evidence were needed of the financial uncertainties washing around this fundamentally troubled club, Benitez unwittingly provided them, when he revealed that he now has no contact with Gillett and, as The Independent revealed last month, that the American's son Foster – an erstwhile important conduit to Gillett for Benitez – has not been seen at the club for weeks, and shows no signs of returning.
Dubai International Capital, who have spurned advances for their cash from several other British clubs as they seek to buy Liverpool, have always felt that George Gillett's doubts about continued ownership provides them with a way in. The improbable figure now filling Foster Gillett's shoes is Hicks himself, who is evidently taking on a role as mentor to Benitez, through regular two-way email correspondence with him. Hicks emailed Benitez before and after the Barnsley FA Cup tie and the Inter Milan match and has already made encouraging noises to him about today's game. "After [our December] meeting I had the support of Tom Hicks almost every week; not every day but after a game, before a game, [he says] 'Come on, well done, you can do it'. [In reply], I say thank you," Benitez said. "After Barnsley, he said 'OK, come on, keep focused now in the Champions League'."
The correspondence will surprise the Liverpool fans who so revile Hicks and Gillett – and Benitez, perhaps wisely, would not be drawn into the question of whether protests against the men who openly courted Jürgen Klinsmann as his successor should now stop.
Benitez has Martin Skrtel fit to solve a central defensive crisis today, with Jamie Carragher suspended and Daniel Agger still three days away from a reserve-team return. His headaches involve one of his most cherished players, Xabi Alonso, the subject of a persistent rumour about Barcelona, after young Brazilian Lucas Leiva has leapfrogged him in the midfield pecking order.
Benitez, who in a recent meeting with the player's agent Inaki Ibanez told him he wants Alonso to stay at Anfield, conceded that the midfielder was frustrated but offered the kind of message that Peter Crouch is familiar with.
"He [Alonso] has been injured for a long time so he needs to improve his physical condition and his match fitness," he said.
In Middlesbrough, Benitez faces a side emerging from early season troubles, with just one defeat from the last 10 on the road in all competitions.
Gareth Southgate could have Robert Huth and Tuncay Sanli back after injury, and has hinted that record signing Afonso Alves could make his first start for the club.
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