Crazy days take over in Benitez's private war

The Liverpool manager has form when it comes to getting his own way at a club, but has he lost the plot this time? Ian Herbert analyses the struggle for power at Anfield
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Hard to believe that the nickname Rafael Benitez's team-mates had for him during his playing days in Real Madrid's second team was "Trina", a popular orange soft drink brand which had no fizz. It was his teetotalism which they were poking fun at, but it was appropriate in so many ways. The spartan and professorial Benitez never had much carbonated spirit in those days.

The same cannot be said of the past three weeks, in which time Benitez has shattered the semi-calm which seemed to be seeing Liverpool to a title push by launching two personal attacks on his prime rivals, making muted criticism of his club's owners for their unwillingness to allow him transfer market autonomy, undermining the fragile confidence of his faltering, £20.3m striker and then conducting one of Wigan's more bizarre post-match press conferences, which left writers shaking their heads on Wednesday night. It is still not entirely clear whether Benitez was making a veiled attack on the referee Phil Dowd with his repeated talk of the "crazy" second half which saw Liverpool lose more ground on Manchester United by dropping two points. Liverpool officials seemed to think so, though Benitez's post-match television interview, when "crazy" cropped up twice more, suggested Wigan had upset him. "I don't want to talk about them because there were things I was not happy about," he said of Steve Bruce's side.

Dowd's conduct at the JJB looks irreproachable in the cold light of day. The late penalty Lucas Leiva conceded was indisputable and some officials might have granted Wigan another for Steven Gerrard's shove on Paul Scharner in the first half. It was also Dowd's foresight which saw him wave play on when Gerrard screamed about an infringement at the start of the phase of play which ended in Yossi Benayoun finishing so well.

Benitez's conduct is best understood as part of a broader pattern. The Liverpool manager doesn't generally go in for spontaneous outbursts – "You must always maintain your dignity and not lose your composure," he told his Tenerife players after they had won promotion to Spain's La Liga in 2000 – and that makes the release of pent-up frustrations strange to behold when they finally make it out. On each occasion, a demand for control is at the heart of the matter.

A precursor of what we are now seeing came last October, when Benitez, seeking transfer market money, had been told by Tom Hicks and George Gillett to make do with the players he had got. The longest televised sulk in Premier League history ensued, Benitez repeating 15 times the ironic mantra: "I am focused on training and coaching my team."

He waged the same kind of battle with the owners of the Extremadura club he managed in the late 1990s, insisting their facilities were inadequate, and the way he ridiculed the players Valencia bought him during a battle for transfer policy autonomy mirrors the current one at Anfield. That spat brought us his now legendary line: "I asked for a table and they brought me a lampshade."

The Spaniard's unwavering belief that he knows best dates back to the days when he was working his way through the Real Madrid youth ranks, making written assessments of his team-mates and telling them their weak points. He believes that he should control his players, to know that they will hang on his every word. Which takes us to the heart of the current travails of Robbie Keane.

Benitez's biographer, Paco Lloret, has written of the Spaniard's particular disdain for players "who believe they have the right to play because of their reputation and experience" and since the December afternoon Keane questioned his authority at his old club Tottenham, muttering "I bet it's me" under his breath after he had been substituted, life has never been the same. Strikers tend to experience this more than most. Michael Owen, El Hadji Diouff, Djibril Cissé, Fernando Morientes, Craig Bellamy and Peter Crouch have all been shown the door by Benitez in his four and a half years at Anfield and Crouch certainly fits the same mould as Keane. He, too, was a player who answered back when he had found his feet and started scoring for Liverpool and England. A telling passage in Jamie Carragher's biography relates how when Crouch was struggling and in need of support "he could do no wrong in the eyes of Rafa", but, as Carragher tells it, "once he'd become a star player for Liverpool and England I saw how their relationship changed. 'I'm worried about you,' Rafa told Crouchy once, after he returned from England duty, having scored a few goals, earned rave reviews and probably indulged in one robot dance too many."

The exception to the rule, where strikers are concerned, is Fernando Torres, of course. His record speaks for itself but he is also one of the Spanish contingent, who can be relied on to toe the line and in Benitez's eyes can do no wrong. There was a revealing response from Benitez yesterday when he was asked whether all the negative headlines might affect the players. He described a conversation he had just enjoyed on the staircase at Liverpool's Melwood training ground. "I was talking with two important players," he said. "It was a good conversation because normally I like to go to the physio's room and talk to them. We were talking for 10 minutes and it was very positive. When you talk with the players you can feel if they have confidence or not – and it's clear they have confidence." Benitez would not reveal the identity of the players, but it is known that the conversation was conducted in Spanish. So perm any two from Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres, the Spaniards he feels he can always rely on. It is a fear that he will make Liverpool's Academy resemble the Spanish armada which, in part, has led Hicks and Gillett to resist his demands for control of that, too. The novelty of that staircase conversation also offers an insight into the lack of spontaneity in his management style.

Benitez has mellowed in some ways. His relationship with Steven Gerrard has been different this season, Benitez finally showering him with the praise which has always been due and speaking of his new maturity. Gerrard and Carragher are the two individuals who evidently can challenge Benitez and survive. Benitez understands their worth to Liverpool is too great for it to be otherwise.

But there is a serious power struggle on the horizon. For the first time since December 2007, Hicks and Gillett are both due to be at Anfield for Chelsea's arrival on Sunday and that should mean discussions about Benitez's contract demands. Both proprietors have been at odds with the manager during negotiations and it is hard to see how the impasse can be bridged. Benitez's bargaining position weakens as Liverpool's grip on the Premier League does. The fizz has by no means gone out of the bottle, where Liverpool are concerned.

Rafa's rants: Liverpool manager's meltdowns

22 November 2007 The Spaniard gave a bizarre press conference as reports grew of a rift between him and the club's owners. Away from his usual willingness to talk, he confined himself to the mantra of "I am focused on training and coaching my team", repeating it in various guises 25 times.

9 January 2009 With the Reds top, Benitez launched an attack on Sir Alex Ferguson, reading from a crib sheet. "Ferguson is killing the referees," he said. "I do not want to play mind games, although they want to start."

27 January 2009 After leaving Keane out of the squad to play Everton, Benitez recalled him but refused to discuss it. "He is our player and in the squad and that's it."

28 January 2009 As a penalty at Wigan dented title hopes further, Benitez attributed the result to a "crazy" second half. "When it is crazy you cannot control things," he said. "I am disappointed with a number of things. It has happened in the last three games. I know why but I cannot say."