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Liverpool v Chelsea: Rafael Benitez's games of political football still divide opinion

Chelsea manager faces warm Anfield return but one that comes with reservations
  • @ianherbs

Liverpool is still his place of sanctuary – even now, three years after he told me that it was time to cut the cord, or risk being the perennial “former Liverpool manager”.

When he confided that fear, Rafael Benitez's head was gazing out beatifically from a mighty advertising hoarding, not far from the Mersey, promoting An Evening with Rafa at the local Empire Theatre. He'd long since been deposed as manager.

Merseyside can get under your skin that way, which is why Benitez – who goes "home" with the Chelsea team which has never been his on Sunday – has been found in many of the old, familiar places these past five months, on his half dozen returns to the place where his wife Montse and the girls, Claudia and Agata, remain settled.

A busy coffee house, tightly packed with tables and diners behind Liverpool's business district, is one of the haunts. Some managers would want more space but Benitez likes it this way, amid the clatter. Another is the Radisson, down towards the river, where they know his table and he is among friends. It's approaching a decade since Benitez discovered these people, as manager of the Valencia team who arrived at Anfield for a friendly in August 2003. The Spaniards won 2-0 but the Kop honoured the visitors with a generous ovation. "These supporters are different, aren't they?" Benitez told friends that night.

Little did he know, back then, that he would one day know all about the provenance of Beatles lyrics, Margaret Thatcher's economic effects on Merseyside and the Blitz which claimed the lives of 4,000 residents. But the more assiduous Benitez watcher might have predicted, even in 2003, that his career in this inestimably political city would become… well, political.

At the time of that pre-season friendly, Benitez was involved in an increasingly bitter confrontation with Jesus Garcia Pitarch, Valencia's director of football. "Previously if I made a pit stop you'd change a wheel for me," he told Pitarch in one of their heated exchanges. "Now I don't even get near the pit stop because you won't let me drive in." This kind of conflict has accompanied an innately political man through football and there are a significant number on Merseyside who do not care for him because of it.

How anyone could fail to be drawn into the toxic civil strife into which Tom Hicks and George Gillett plunged Liverpool, almost rendering them insolvent in the process, is anyone's guess. Yet Benitez said what he had to say and is remembered for it. That is why we need to deconstruct the notion of Liverpool adoration and Chelsea loathing in the Anfield stands tomorrow, as if the two had taken up the wrong ends of the ground.

Liverpool fans will also argue the merits of his transfer spending long into the night. For every Fernando Torres there is a Robbie Keane; for every Xabi Alonso an Alberto Aquilani. And, of course, there was the pursuit of Gareth Barry in preference to Alonso. Benitez will tell you that there was logic: Alonso had seemed to be fading and a quota of English players was required. But the supporters who admire Alonso's contemporary powers now struggle to see it that way.

Viewed through the prism of a 2012-13 season which has seemed interminable at times, the Benitez days at Anfield certainly look halcyon now. Just compare Liverpool's meek capitulation at Old Trafford in January and the afternoon Benitez's players bestrode that place, Torres destroying Nemanja Vidic in a 4-1 win in March 2009. It tells us that many didn't really know what they'd got, in this manager, until he was gone.

Some of the players might agree with that sentiment, in their hearts. Jamie Carragher may not now be the greatest advocate of Benitez's powers but he said in his biography that no one improved him more as a defender. The Spaniard only attracts extreme emotions. It will be a complicated homecoming.