Nick Townsend: A throwback but quality of Mersey is strained

Click to follow
The Independent Football

After those seemingly interminable added minutes, which conspired to produce an explosion of exaltation, Anfield hailed the local boys Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard longest and loudest of the Liverpool performers. But mostly it acclaimed a portly 45-year-old, pasty-faced character on the touchline, who was once mockingly confused by a director when he first arrived cloaked in anonymity at his previous club, Valencia, with Manuel Benitez.

After those seemingly interminable added minutes, which conspired to produce an explosion of exaltation, Anfield hailed the local boys Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard longest and loudest of the Liverpool performers. But mostly it acclaimed a portly 45-year-old, pasty-faced character on the touchline, who was once mockingly confused by a director when he first arrived cloaked in anonymity at his previous club, Valencia, with Manuel Benitez.

The Benitez to whom he referred was "El Cordobes", the legendary bullfighter. Though 20 years his junior, Rafael Benitez will not have objected to the comparison. Two La Liga titles and a Uefa Cup demonstrated there that when it came to blood-letting, he possessed many of the instincts of a matador. As Benitez exhorted his players in the Champions' League semi-final on Tuesday night, almost manic in his gestures at times, it was as if his team's defensive demeanour was designed specifically to provoke a spirited, snorting Chelsea to succumb to sheer fatigue and frustration at their inability to wound Liverpool.

It was not in any way for the delectation of the purist. Strip away the context and it was an indictment of the Premiership. They say 264 television channels broadcast the second leg worldwide. One can only cringe at the global judgement of a contest in which desperately indifferent distribution was epitomised by Liver-pool's Igor Biscan. Yes, he is a reformed man from the one who played under Gérard Houllier, but you still wouldn't want your life to depend on a pass from the Croatian reaching a team-mate.

As Arsenal's Arsène Wenger mused diplomatically on Friday: "The game was interesting to watch; but it was more about emotion than technique."

While the faithful attempted to evoke the distant past by recreating an atmosphere last witnessed in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, probably before many of the crowd were born, those of us who can recall that bygone era will testify that the Liverpool of today bear only peripheral relation to those powerful, awe-inspiring combinations containing the likes of Callaghan, Thompson, Toshack and Hughes.

The fact that Liverpool succeeded, the reward a date with destiny in Istanbul on 25 May, is testimony to the manager's coaching prowess, though to suggest, as some have, that victory was the result of him tactically outman-oeuvring Jose Mourinho is being a trifle generous. His counterpart started with a depleted side, and by the latter stages had nothing left to work with. Ultimately, providence guided Benitez and his men to their destination.

Never mind that Liverpool enjoyed the benefit of an assistant referee's debatable perspective; Mourinho's team had 85 minutes to make good their repairs. It was Eidur Gudjohnsen's wayward last-minute attempt which was the defining moment. Hence it is premature in the extreme for such adjectives as "great" and expressions like "master tactician" to be creeping already into players' and commentators' vocabularies. Both are eulogies that should be reserved for the genius of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley.

But for Gudjohnsen's aberration, we would now be debating not so much Benitez's undoubted expertise in plotting Liverpool's progress to a European semi-final and Carling Cup final, but a man whose team have lost 13 Premiership matches, one of the worst records in Liverpool's history, certainly over the last decade, and a litany which is likely to culminate in a failure to qualify for next season's Champions' League. Only in 1988-89 did they lose more, 14 games, and the season has not yet ended.

The border between triumph and ignominy can be that narrow. That Gudjohnsen moment calls to mind Liverpool's neighbours and their former manager Howard Kendall, who in 1984 was said to be a Milk Cup elimination at the hands of Oxford United away from dismissal. True or not, Everton were 1-0 behind when an ill-judged back-pass by Kevin Brock allowed Adrian Heath to secure an equaliser. It preserved Kendall's imme-diate tenure and was followed by an era of prosperity for Everton and Kendall.

Liverpool will be hoping that Tuesday will prove to be equally propitious, although even victory in Istanbul against a Milan who made heavy weather of PSV Eindhoven and have appeared decidedly vulnerable since overcoming Manchester United would only partially convince us that Benitez is capable of elevating Liverpool to their bountiful past. Nothing less than a Premiership title, or a position adjacent to it, would suffice.

Nevertheless, the measure of a manager is his ability to coax excellence from decent performers and inveigle acceptable ones from players who are seemingly a liability, and by that definition Benitez has more than justified the faith placed in him by his chairman, David Moores, and chief executive, Rick Parry, both of whom were beleaguered men a year ago. Who, among the Kop, could have imagined that Djimi Traoré would be contesting a Champions' League final? Or indeed the ever-improving Steve Finnan?

When you ask yourself just how many of today's players would be coveted by Europe's élite clubs, no more than three names thrust themselves forward. Obviously Gerrard. Carragher, too. His performances have been revitalised by Benitez to a pitch which could convince Sven Goran Eriksson to embrace him in his England side. The Spanish playmaker Xabi Alonso? But few others.

Regardless of the outcome at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, there will be a preponderance of "For Sale" signs come the summer. Vladimir Smicer, Mauricio Pellegrino, Milan Baros, Jerzy Dudek and Harry Kewell could all be in the Used Player lot, with another clutch on loan, including El Hadji Diouf, Bruno Cheyrou, Salif Diao and Gregory Vignal - some of them men that time forgot - allowed to leave permanently.

As much as pleasure was derived among the uncommitted from Chelsea's downfall, the reality was that a costly team defeated an even costlier one (lest it be forgotten, Houllier had laid out £110m before Benitez had even opened his chequebook for what may be termed the Spanish Acquisition). Unless Liverpool qualify for the Champions' League next season, by dint of finishing fourth this season, or by some change of heart from Uefa should the Merseysiders defeat Milan, and thus harness more funds, Benitez will need to sell in order to enhance his squad beyond the anticipated £5m arrival of the Villarreal goalkeeper Jose Manuel Reina.

But that is all in Liverpool's future. For the moment, their players, staff and followers can only dwell on one date, and on providing a fifth "European Cup" for the Anfield trophy room. Once it provided an intimidating vista for opponents. Today it has become a museum of antiquities, with more treasures than Howard Carter witnessed in his lifetime. It is an immutable law of football that the more the dust accumulates over a club's most valued collection of League and European silverware, the greater becomes the desire to recover those lost years.

One would not condemn those Istanbul-bound souls for daring to believe that Benitez may be the prophet to deliver them the promised land, even if its contours are somewhat different from that occupied by Shankly and Paisley.

"Winning is everything," was a favourite Shanklyism. "Second is nothing." No more. If Gerrard were to raise the Cup of Champions and Assorted Failures, which the main European trophy should now be accurately termed, and his team finish fourth in the Premiership, the pride of Anfield would be restored.

Comments