How the Benitez Code worked wonders

Story unfolds of a piece of paper that made history in Istanbul. Nick Townsend hears a re-run of Rafa's team talk
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The Independent Football

As the exodus began, and the fez-clad Liverpool followers - looking more like Tommy Cooper than Tommy Smith - ceased their raucous occupancy of Istanbul on Thursday morning, Rafael Benitez sat in the team hotel and attempted to explain the previous 12 hours. He probably hadn't noticed that elsewhere in that residency, delegates were just arriving for The 23rd World Congress of Pathology. Had he done so, it would have confirmed to him that, but for his own half-time intervention with the introduction of Dietmar Hamann, and that of goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, who twice thwarted Andrei Shevchenko at the conclusion of extra time, most of the media may have been present to dissect the body Liverpool and his management of it, not to glorify them.

As the exodus began, and the fez-clad Liverpool followers - looking more like Tommy Cooper than Tommy Smith - ceased their raucous occupancy of Istanbul on Thursday morning, Rafael Benitez sat in the team hotel and attempted to explain the previous 12 hours. He probably hadn't noticed that elsewhere in that residency, delegates were just arriving for The 23rd World Congress of Pathology. Had he done so, it would have confirmed to him that, but for his own half-time intervention with the introduction of Dietmar Hamann, and that of goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, who twice thwarted Andrei Shevchenko at the conclusion of extra time, most of the media may have been present to dissect the body Liverpool and his management of it, not to glorify them.

All Benitez could do was attempt to explain the science behind everything that had taken place, and without request he produced a folded piece of A4 paper from the pocket of his tracksuit. It was rather like a child revealing an exam crib sheet. You sensed he wasn't entirely certain he should be revealing such a document to a bunch of cynical journalists, and when he was asked for a copy so that it could be reproduced for the benefit of readers of this newspaper, he politely declined.

You cannot blame him. This was his decidedly private aide memoire, a kind of Road Map to progress, containing notes of his planned exhortations to his players during the three main intervals. Everything that passed through that fertile mind on Wednesday night at the Ataturk Stadium is detailed on it, from his perspective of Milan's first goal after 52 seconds to the schedule of penalty-takers for the shoot-out.

What that document, which appeared as impenetrable as the Da Vinci Code, and the owner's explanation of those scribbles confirm is the magnitude of Liverpool's achievement under his steward- ship. Not only has Benitez fashioned a Champions' League-winning side from one who have been injury-stricken and, many would suggest, deficient in the overall class that the leading clubs in Europe boast, but he has done so handicapped by tenuous communication processes.

Listen to the Spaniard, and life at Mellwood training ground sounds more suited to Mind Your Language (for the uninitiated, a feeble old TV sitcom which essentially ridiculed foreigners' misuse of English) than providing material for Match Of The Day.

"Five minutes before half-time, I was thinking about tactics and making changes," he explains. "Then walking to the changing room I was thinking about what to say and how to say it. I needed to select the right words, and that is difficult when I have players who speak different languages."

He provides, with smiling self-depracation, an example of the problem, recalling the moment when he was first at the club and saw a player in a training session about to take a free-kick. "I said to him 'Be careful with the wine'. The player said [Benitez mimics the player's expression of incredulity] 'what do you mean?' I said: 'Sorry, no, I mean 'be careful with the wind'. If you change one letter, the whole thing is different. If you want to express all the things that you want to, it's very difficult."

The essence of his message as his men returned to that half-time dressing room with heads bowed, partly in prayer that three Milan goals would not become four or five, was that he would be replacing - many would suggest belatedly - Steve Finnan with Hamann. The German would be deployed primarily to negate the threat of a defence-destroying Kaka. "But it wasn't just tactics I wanted to change," Benitez reports. "I wanted to communicate to the players that they needed to have confidence and believe in the possibility that they could score one goal. In football, one goal, maybe one corner, one free-kick, can mean all the difference."

Benitez runs his finger down his notes. "This is in English; this is in Spanish. Here, [I talk about] Luis Garcia and what I want from him against [Andrea] Pirlo. Things like that. Here, before extra-time I say we need to use up time and play long balls, looking for the second ball, because we are so tired."

It's difficult to conceive of Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger discussing so intimately the complexities of their strategy. But, as yet, Benitez appears untouched by the cynicism of his profession. Viewing the Spaniard is reminiscent of an innocent tourist who wanders through a shadowy and myserious Eastern bazaar but somehow emerges not only without a blade between his shoulder-blades, but in possession of a relatively inexpensively-purchased rare artefact: Liverpool's fifth European Cup, their first in 15 years.

Benitez studied French at school in Madrid, and also began to learn English 10 years ago. His efforts to improve the latter have been enhanced, he says, by listening to the lyrics of Beatles tracks in his car. I asked him which were his favourites. "Michelle," he says, and after a pause, "Help!" Whether said in jest or in all seriousness, the latter offering could hardly have been more appropriate.

Help, I need somebody, not just anybody. Won't somebody please, please help me. It could have been his half-time plea.

The answer came principally in the introduction of Hamann, without whom, well, one can only conject on the outcome. Yet, the German substitute, together with any of a further five - Dudek, Traoré, Kewell, Baros and substitute Vladimir Smicer - of the 14 who ultimately emerged so remarkably as victors, could well discover that theirs was also a valedictory performance.

Such a triumph will not, and was never likely to deflect Benitez from his long-term mission of Premiership distinction. Benitez is aware that the wrangle over their Champions' League "defence" next season has served obligingly to plaster over the fissures in his domestic record.

His uncomfortable task has already begun before he takes a brief holiday with his parents in Madrid, followed by a few days away with his wife Montse - "because if I don't go, she will kill me", he says, ruefully - and children. Benitez stresses: "In football, if you only think about the memories you cannot win the next game."

Clearly, there were those playing who were acutely aware that Wednesday night would be their last? He nods. "It is really difficult to play, knowing that, when you finish your contract, you may not be in the squad. But we talk before about these things and we say 'OK, this is The Final'. I say 'if we win, you will be part of history, you will be legends, and that is the most important thing'. Because then you can talk with other clubs and be proud and say 'I am a Champions' League winner' and your value will be different. It will be better for you, for sure."

One performer definitely absent from the list of cast-offs will be his compatriot, the hugely influential Xabi Alonso, to whose lengthy absence Benitez attributes, in part, Liverpool's failure to secure fourth position in the Premiership.

Curiously, the manager's most vivid memory of Wednesday night concerns that same player and his penalty miss, a failure which Alonso rectified immediately by converting the rebound from goalkeeper Dida. Benitez laughs. "Before he took it, I was thinking 'Dida's really tall, with long arms'. In my mind, I could see Xabi shooting and the shot being saved. That was the image in my head. I was also afraid because once, when I was 20 years old, I shot a penalty in a shoot-out against Milan in a tournament and the goalkeeper saved it. Fortunately, my team still won!"

Which perhaps helps to explain why, apart from an injury-enforced retirement, he would always prosper rather more as a coach than a player. But nobody could have prophesised quite how propitious that change of career would be as he set out on this magical history tour.

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