Given that Bill Shankly was always profoundly suspicious of the Spaniards – his xenophobic streak had much to do with the Spanish referee Jose Maria Ortiz de Mendibil being allegedly nobbled by Internazionale ahead of the 1965 European Cup semi-final in which Liverpool felt they were cheated – it is easy to imagine what he would make of opposing managers from that country contesting the Anfield match during which Shankly's own contribution to the club will be commemorated tonight.
But those innate suspicions aside, the Scot, whose family will be welcomed on to the pitch at half-time against Wigan this evening, would probably have acknowledged that Rafael Benitez and Roberto Martinez are Spaniards apart. For such a gifted football nation, it has exported extraordinarily few successful managers. Juande Ramos lasted barely a season at White Hart Lane, Ernesto Valverde did not stay in Greece for long after winning a double at Olympiakos and is now at Villarreal and Javier Clemente failed as Serbia's manager before quitting the Iran job because he did not want to live in Tehran. Benitez, for all the trials of a season in which a run of three wins from 15 games make tonight's match so important, has comfortably surpassed them all.
He and Martinez are not especially close. Their paths first crossed in the early 1990s, when Benitez was managing Real Madrid's under-19s and Martinez was playing for Real Zaragoza's equivalent (the Aragonese won 3-1) and they only re-established personal contact when Martinez took Liverpool's Paul Anderson on loan at Swansea City two years ago. But the Wigan manager knew all about the the weight of expectation under which Benitez prospered at Valencia, before taking the route to England Martinez pursued, first as a player, in 1995. "Valencia always had huge expectations but no one was able to fulfil them until Rafa arrived. What he did in the domestic competition and then in Europe is difficult to describe," Martinez said.
These are not platitudes. Though Martinez denied comments attributed to him that he considers Benitez a victim of an English managers' "mafia" led by Sir Alex Ferguson, he did convey them in an off-the-record conversation with a Spanish journalist which, to his embarrassment, was subsequently published. The overriding quality Martinez sees in Benitez is his power of adaptation. "He wins games with what's he got," he added. "He's such a clever, clever tactician. He could have different styles depending on the squads he's got. If you look at [the way] Tenerife were playing when they got promoted [in 2001], it was completely different to the way Valencia were playing when they won the league [the following year] which was different to the way Valencia were when they went far in Europe . Even with Liverpool he just adapts to his squad to try to be competitive."
But Benitez is currently in such alien territory that you wonder whether his methods have simply stopped working. "Not really," Martinez said, "because that's why you have the squad. Many years ago you had top players and that was it, and the famous phrase was 'they had to perform for the manager.' Nowadays they have to perform for themselves. It's their career. You have squads of 25 or 26 players. If something doesn't work you can change it quite easily. Then you've got the [transfer] windows."
Benitez may allow himself a rueful smile at that one. Money is tight at an Anfield and never has the manager been so dependent on his two prime players, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Neither can Liverpool afford their place among the elite to dip: it is their sell to the new investors from whom they are seeking £100m. It is not the kind of burden Shankly faced, Martinez acknowledges. "It's easier to blame one man – the manager – rather than 25, put it that way," he said. "The industry we're in, you're not talking a few million you're talking about massive money, big assets, big marketing images. It's easier to change one man than 10 or 11 players."
Martinez does not buy the idea of Liverpool being displaced from the top four. "There are so many points left," he said. "There is nothing better than having the experience of knowing how to finish in the top four in the Premier League, believe me. In that respect, they've got that." The most articulate defence of Benitez for months. He could probably use a glass of rioja and a conversation with his compatriot when battle is done tonight.
Alan A'Court passes away at the age of 75
Alan A'Court, who scored Liverpool's first competitive goal under Bill Shankly, has died at the age of 75. A'Court made 381 Liverpool appearances and scored 63 goals in an 11-year spell at Anfield after signing in 1952. His strong and direct performances on the left flank earned him a place in the England squad at the 1958 World Cup despite Liverpool being in the Second Division at the time.Reuse content