Carragher the perfectionist cast in the same mould as Benitez

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The Independent Football

Should Liverpool triumph in this afternoon's FA Cup final then Carragher, with socks rolled down and shin-guards discarded at the end of the match, will quickly locate his family and friends inside the Millennium Stadium and lead the celebrations in front of his kin. At the same time, Benitez will locate a player who could have cost Liverpool the game and puncture the jubilation by deliberately detailing his mistake. "The manager is very critical, not one for praising people," Carragher reveals. "A classic example was against Juventus in the Champions' League last season. We had just kept a clean sheet in Turin against some of the best players in the world and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when he came straight over and started pointing out where I had gone wrong. I had missed something behind me in the last minute apparently. He does it all the time, he done it after we beat Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, but there's nothing wrong with it. He's just a perfectionist."

And so, now, is Carragher, who continues to revel in the responsibility afforded by Benitez's decision to establish the 28-year-old as his first choice centre-half upon his arrival at Anfield in July 2004. "There was no pep talk, he just put me there. Maybe I could have been putting these performances in three or four years ago if I hadn't been switched to full-back," he said. The failure to set a new club record of 35 clean sheets this season, a feat denied by Ognjen Koroman's late consolation for Portsmouth last weekend, has therefore been taken as a personal insult. "I am depressed about the fact we can only equal the record now in Cardiff," admits Carragher. "It has been on my mind since Christmas and it did my head in to concede that goal. I was gutted, because we would have had the chance to set a new record in the final."

The reigning European champions, for five more days, may be favourites to land another major trophy but the shared philosophy of their manager and abrasive central defender will prevent complacency creeping into their approach in Cardiff. "Our manager has a great saying," reveals Carragher. "He always tells us: 'If you think you are better than them, make sure you beat them first, then say it afterwards.'"

Carragher cites two warnings from recent team history - the 1988 FA Cup final defeat by Wimbledon and the events of Istanbul last May - as ample evidence of the perils of over-confidence, although he maintains Milan were not guilty of showboating in the second half at the Ataturk Stadium despite several of their players wearing victory T-shirts beneath their jerseys. "I don't like it when people say they took it easy, they didn't," he insists. "Look at the game again. They were going for a fourth goal early in the second half but we pulled one back and that did it for us. Other than those six minutes, Milan were outstanding."

Not unlike Benitez, the Bootle-born defender is looking beyond today's showpiece to the next stage of the club's development, a phase that must involve a genuine challenge for the Premiership. Intensely studious, at least where football is concerned, Carragher credits Benitez with shaping his education on and off the pitch and remains indebted to the former Valencia manager who, he admits, must avoid the mistakes that sent Gérard Houllier's reign into decline when a shot at the championship appeared so close in 2002.

Carragher explains: "It would have been virtually impossible for anyone to have come in and done better than what our manager has done over the past two years. When you look at the money he has had to spend and the situation when he arrived - all the injuries in his first season - you have to say we've got a top manager. I would say that after two years under Benitez, we are at the same stage as after four years under Houllier. We are looking to next season and believing we have a chance of winning the League. That is how it was in 2002, after we finished second and looked to make the final push the following year. As it turned out, we finished fifth, and you have to say the players we brought in that summer didn't quite work out. Instead of progressing, we moved backwards. It is important we get the right players in this summer - a pacy out-and-out goalscorer and a right winger are the priorities - and give ourselves the momentum to keep going forward. The title is what the manager is driving us towards."

For today at least, however, the Premiership is off limits, and it demonstrates how deep Carragher's influence runs in the modern Liverpool that he can even claim association with the origins of the club's official FA Cup final song, a reworking of the Johnny Cash classic "Ring of Fire". "Ring of Fire started on the fans' coach that my dad and his mates get to the away games," he reveals. "Someone put a Johnny Cash tape on and my dad and everyone started singing it on the bus. It caught on at Anfield, then it became a favourite at the European away games and now Ian McCulloch has brought it out as the Cup final song. I've just been listening to it in the car actually. Freddie Flintoff tried to take it for the England cricket team, but we've got it back."