James Lawton: Liverpool hails the new king of the Kop

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The Independent Football

Liverpool may be a great port city with a rollicking history, but it is also a village, a place where people can find out about each other in the time it takes to sink a pint and make a roll-up. It is why the coronation of Rafael Benitez as the King of the Kop this week was a formality - a thunderous one, no doubt, but still a formality.

In the course of a season which has, to say the least, been somewhat erratic on its way to the stars and a place in the Champions' League final in Istanbul in three weeks' time, the people of Liverpool have established a few certainties about the nature of the man who has come among them so unassumingly.

They know he is a football man to the last inch of his gently rotund body, and that his achievements in Spain and Europe were deeply impressive. They knew he would attack the power and the pretension of Chelsea for as long as it was feasible. And they know he spends every working day amid his troops out on the training field, without retiring to his office to monitor radio shows and gauge levels of criticism, within and without the club - a habit developed over the years by his embattled predecessor, Gérard Houllier. Liverpool got to know that, too.

The football city also knows that Benitez has endured a season which would have tested the resolve and the ambition of any manager: injuries to key players at all the wrong times, a run of misfortune crowned, grotesquely, in the first leg at Stamford Bridge when arguably his most important player, the midfielder Xabi Alonso, was suspended after wrongly receiving a yellow card because of the tawdry theatricals of Chelsea's Eidur Gudjohnsen. And what has been Benitez's reaction to even the worst of his luck - and most serious shortfall in some of his team's Premiership performances? He has bitten his lip and battled on.

In the glory of victory over Chelsea this week, there was a flashpoint of memory from a raw Saturday afternoon at Newcastle a few months ago. Liverpool had lost, fallen back another stride in their effort to qualify for European football next season. How could he entertain the idea of beating Juventus in the next round of the Champions' League?

"In football you have taken the blows, and you have to see what is possible," Benitez said. "I believe in my players... I like their character. We know it is probably not possible to have much more bad luck. Maybe we will never have a such a season again, but we are still alive, believe me. Can we beat Juventus? Of course."

What Liverpool sees when it looks at Benitez is a shrewd football operator, an old player at heart - and a good man. A man, that is, without an ego that crushes those around him; a man who knows life as well as he knows football.

In his willingness to celebrate Jamie Carragher - as the outstandingly consistent presence in a team of remarkable spirit, if not always technical accomplishment - he goes straight back to the man who laid down the tradition which was so exultantly celebrated at Anfield this week.

Benitez does not share all of Bill Shankly's traits, to say the least of it. You cannot imagine him clambering up on to his desk, clenching his fists and telling you: "My team is going to go off like a great bloody bomb in the sky." But there is a bond, and it is the one to do with respect for the game and the people in it.

Shankly hated to lose but he was rarely peevish in defeat, and he would have been shocked by the latest example of overweening ego displayed by Jose Mourinho when he was required to face his first serious disappointment of the season this week.

Shankly once complained that Ajax were the most defensive team he had ever seen, but then few begrudged him a small display of angst. Ajax had, after all, just beaten Liverpool 5-0.

Shankly revered Jock Stein and Matt Busby, and always showed respect to his rivals. Mourinho broke that law of class once again this week when he declared the "best team lost".

Benitez could afford to take the high ground, and naturally he did. He said how pleased he was to get by such a formidable team.

Mourinho found such grace elusive - once again. It was to revive, unpleasantly, the memory of his behaviour after losing to Barcelona at the Nou Camp, the controversy over the referee, Anders Frisk, which eventually produced the admission that he had lied quite brazenly.

Yes, of course, Mourinho has done brilliant work at Stamford Bridge. He did not so much win as annex the Premiership. His drawing out of the competitive instincts of all his key players was nothing less than inspired and relentless. Until Anfield, that is. There he found he had confront some bitter truths. One of them was that when faced by the loss of Damien Duff and Arjen Robben, in many ways his most important players, he proved himself less than a tactical genius.

As he did in the first leg, he resorted to the long ball, and the mark of his desperation was the sight of the defender Robert Huth, thrown up front, and the arrival of the failed Mateja Kezman. When Manchester United signed Wayne Rooney, Mourinho said he preferred Kezman. He could "do more things". It is one of quite a few declarations that, it would be nice to think, Mourinho now regrets.

Now he has the vast resources of Roman Abramovich at his disposal as he goes about reseeding his team, he must see it is a job that demands urgency in several areas, not least in that of creativity.

He needs a midfield playmaker who can break open a defence with a single pass - someone like Alonso. He needs a superior striking force; Didier Drogba has failed too many times, and Kezman has never looked likely to be an authentic force.

Just as pressingly he needs to take a look in the mirror. When he blamed officials this week, when he said Liverpool's victory came from the moon or the Kop, he was running from the truth. Chelsea had a lot of the ball, but made just once chance ... and if Luis Garcia's decisive goal was questionable, there was no doubt that Liverpool were due a penalty - and the sending-off of Petr Cech - when Baros was flattened in the penalty area.

In the end there was no question. The night - and maybe the football year - belonged to Benitez. As the Kop sang so passionately, it could not have been in better hands.

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