Benitez, the calm and controlled master of strategy plotting Chelsea's downfall

Liverpool's manager is seen as the antithesis of Jose Mourinho, writes Sam Wallace, but should not be underestimated
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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez is English football's politest refusenik. For three months this summer, Liverpool's new manager polished his command of the English language until every sub-clause was in place and every sentence ran smooth and, when he was finally satisfied, he mastered the art of saying nothing. His team are in the Champions' League semi-finals tonight, the cult of the foreign manager grips the nation, but Benitez, and the forces that drive him, has remained Anfield's best-kept secret.

Rafael Benitez is English football's politest refusenik. For three months this summer, Liverpool's new manager polished his command of the English language until every sub-clause was in place and every sentence ran smooth and, when he was finally satisfied, he mastered the art of saying nothing. His team are in the Champions' League semi-finals tonight, the cult of the foreign manager grips the nation, but Benitez, and the forces that drive him, has remained Anfield's best-kept secret.

Unassuming and unflappable. The patient demeanour of a sixth-form careers adviser with no great passion for sharp suits and carrying a little extra around the waist. It is an unlikely profile for a 45-year-old man who has been trusted with restoring the greatness of Britain's most successful-ever football club. He arrived from Valencia with two league titles, one Uefa Cup and an impeccable reputation and he has used an everyman aspect, and inexhaustible good humour, as a shield around his personality.

Benitez, it is widely accepted, has given away less about himself in the course of the season than his opposite number, Jose Mourinho, reveals in the average 15 minutes. For Liverpool's manager there have been no grand public avowals of love for his family, no cryptic newspaper columns hinting at courageous personal battles against sinister hidden powers. When Liverpool-watchers cast their minds back for some shred of detail about Benitez's personality, all that comes up is an old, military board game.

Stratego, to be precise - first released by the Milton Bradley corporation in 1961 and moderately popular among Spanish kids growing up in the 1970s. Last month, very much unprovoked, Benitez lectured a group of slightly bemused reporters at some length about his passion for the game. He talked them through the rules, and the strategy of Stratego, but most of all he emphasised, with earnest intensity, his own supremacy at it. No one, came the message, beats me at this game.

For a manager who has given up little of himself since he moved to England last summer with his wife, Montse, it was a charming moment of eccentricity and the image of a young Rafa painstakingly setting up his Stratego army for battle is equally beguiling. Preparation and attention to detail are not just the preserve of Mourinho. That Liverpool are even in a position where they might add to their four European Cups this season is down, in no small measure, to the tactical brilliance of their Spanish coach.

It is fundamental to the rules of Stratego - you can actually still buy it - that formation is the key to success. A principle that sustained Liverpool through their finest hour this season, the 0-0 draw against Juventus in Turin that qualified them for tonight's Champions' League semi-final against Chelsea. Facing a five-man midfield - and one that was without Steven Gerrard - Juventus' coach, Fabio Capello, whose tactical acumen no one would dispute, found himself comprehensively outmanoeuvred.

That night in the Stadio delle Alpi it was possible to forget how far Benitez has taken Liverpool in Europe in such a short time. At home to Graz AK, where they lost the second leg of their qualifier 1-0, and away at Olympiakos and Monaco, it would be no exaggeration to say that Liverpool were poorer than at any time under Benitez's predecessor, Gérard Houllier. And then away at Deportivo la Coruña and, in the tumultuous final group game at home to Olympiakos, they were supreme again.

After defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday left Everton four points clear in fourth place with a game in hand, Benitez could be forgiven for finding his patience stretched to the limit at the prospect of failing to qualify for the one competition in which Liverpool have excelled. However, those inside the club's Melwood headquarters report a much calmer atmosphere under the new regime. For all his strengths as a manager, Houllier's moods on any given day could be felt right throughout the building - Benitez's state of mind remains his concern alone.

Benitez has proved so far to be a manager who requires remarkably low emotional maintenance from the Liverpool board. In a city that prides itself on a faith in social equality, it did not go unnoticed that, after the triumphant draw in Turin, Benitez paid tribute to "the workers" at Anfield as well as the players and coaching staff. The Liverpool manager will joke when he feels confident enough - injury crises are sometimes met with the mock despair that his loyal assistant, Pako Ayesteran, will have to play - but so far he has shown far less emotion than he managed in one day at Valencia.

It was Benitez's last day and it finished with a press conference at which he broke down in tears - the end of an acrimonious power struggle within the hierarchy of the then Spanish champions. Last May, the club's new president, Juan Bautista Soler, made a personal visit to Benitez's home to beg him to stay, but it was too late. In renegotiating their manager's contract, a series of mistakes made by Valencia ended with his departure.

The story of how Valencia came to lose Benitez is another lesson in the resolve that lurks beneath his mild public face. With Valencia closing in on the title this time last year, Benitez approached the club's chief executive, Manuel Llorente, with whom he had a strained relationship, to negotiate new terms on a contract that was due to expire this summer. He was understood to be earning around £1.2m a year.

The first offer to Benitez from Llorente was a meagre one-year extension to his contract and a pay rise of five per cent. Benitez was disbelieving and rejected the offer which was raised to a two-year extension and a 10 per cent increase in salary when the two parties met again on 9 May, the day that Valencia beat Seville to win La Liga. Even then, Llorente was understood to have been banking on pressuring Benitez into signing a deal over the last year of his contract.

By that time he had decided that such derisory offers in return for transforming Valencia into only the fourth team outside the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona to win the league in 20 years meant that he would have to leave.

Benitez already knew that there was interest in him across Europe - including the offer of a lucrative two-year deal from Besiktas in Turkey. When it became clear that Liverpool were prepared to offer him a five-year deal, his mind was made up.

Realising too late how disastrously their negotiating tactics had played out, Valencia offered Benitez a radically improved offer to stay. When Soler visited him, he is reported to have asked the Liverpool coach to name his price, but Benitez told him that it was too late and two weeks later he had been appointed by the Anfield board. Since then Valencia, currently sixth in La Liga, have embarked on a steep decline.

What his departure from Valencia tells us about Benitez is that the affable, bespectacled man on the touchline at Anfield has a streak of iron running through him. He was an unspectacular player in Real Madrid's reserves and at Parla and Linares, sporting in those days the hairstyle of choice among 1980s Spanish footballers - a nest of black curls that has diminished with age. His rise as a manager with Extremadura and Tenerife came despite two false starts with Valladolid and Osasuna in the mid-1990s.

While his preparation for the biggest matches has been exemplary, his record of signings at Liverpool has divided opinion. No one doubts the merits of Xabi Alonso, but then at £10.6m, no one should have had reason to. At the other end of the scale is Antonio Nuñez, the hapless winger who arrived from Real Madrid as part of the fee for Michael Owen and whose performances have caused consternation among some of the senior players. He has, by all accounts, fared little better in training.

Luis Garcia can justifiably be regarded as a success, his poor away form in the Premiership balanced by breathtaking contributions such as that exceptional goal against Juventus. Josemi, signed in a desperate attempt to get some cover at right-back, was beginning to show his limitations when he was injured in December. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, relative to his reputation, has been Fernando Morientes who, cup-tied for the Champions' League, has scored just three times in 14 games.

The serious injuries suffered by Liverpool, nine to first-team players, have been borne with dignity by Benitez, who has never complained about the disruption that they have caused to his season. His criticisms of referees, when they have occurred, are pitched at the anger level of a suburban neighbour mildly inquiring about the late return of a loaned lawnmower. But the quiet life cultivated by Benitez has meant that throughout his career he has found himself underestimated. That it will be the case again tonight will suit him perfectly.

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