Rafa trusts in his tres amigos to reign over Spain

Alonso, Garcia and Josemi are starting to make an impact as flying Nunez waits in the wings
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The Independent Online

Sir Bobby Robson, the only football figure to have produced as many autobiographies as George Best, called the first of them Time On The Grass, a coaches' expression referring to the need for practice, and plenty of it, in shaping successful teams. For the past fortnight it has been international managers who have enjoyed that precious commodity while their high-level club counterparts sat and watched television and fretted about how many weary or injured players they would have to do without this weekend.

Sir Bobby Robson, the only football figure to have produced as many autobiographies as George Best, called the first of them Time On The Grass, a coaches' expression referring to the need for practice, and plenty of it, in shaping successful teams. For the past fortnight it has been international managers who have enjoyed that precious commodity while their high-level club counterparts sat and watched television and fretted about how many weary or injured players they would have to do without this weekend.

It is a particularly frustrating period for coaches at a new club, such as those Iberian workaholics Jose Mourinho of Chelsea and Liverpool's Rafael Benitez, who day after day find the car park almost empty and the dressing room deserted. "We have [had] 14 players going to play internationals," Benitez complained at the splendidly appointed Melwood training ground as those concerned finally returned there at the end of last week. "It's difficult to train with three. You have maybe 12 [full] weeks for training and for six there is nobody here."

The consolation this week, after yesterday's stunning comeback at Fulham, is that less time than usual need be spent on familiarisation with the next opponents. Tuesday's visitors, Deportivo La Coruña, are even better known to Benitez and the armada of fellow-countrymen he has brought with him from Spain than they are to those who have watched the Galician side's progress through five successive Champions' League seasons, their blue-and-white stripes becoming familiar at Old Trafford, Highbury and Elland Road. In his previous job, taking Valencia to two domestic championships and a Uefa Cup in three seasons, Benitez encountered them regularly as the two clubs became the equivalent of Spain's "New Firm", breaking down the hegemony of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Last season, Depor pulled off one of the most unlikely comebacks in the history of the European Cup, beating Milan 4-0 after losing the first leg 4-1; they then held Porto goalless away in the semi-final before being outthought by Mourinho and losing the return. The British-style striker Roy Makaay has been sold to Bayern Munich and Nourredine Naybet has gone to Tottenham, though that has not brought down the average age much. Players such as Juan Carlos Valeron, Mauro Silva, Diego Tristan, Enrique Romero and Cesar, plus the captain, Fran, all seem to have been at the club forever - 13 years in Fran's case. That is only six more than the gum-chewing coach, Javier Irureta, who sticks rigidly to his favourite 4-2-3-1 formation.

Benitez, much as he would like such consistency, wonders if they may now be growing a little too old together, which could explain an unexpectedly poor start to the season: "The problem is they have almost the same players and the same manager for seven years. It's difficult if you don't change a lot. They have a very good team but didn't play so well [recently] because two or three important players have been injured, like Mauro Silva and [Aldo] Duscher.

"They play combination passes, two against one, three against two, but can also play long passes to [Alberto] Luque on the left side, who's quick." And can score, as Real Madrid found out when he claimed the only goal of the most recent game at the Bernabeu to improve Depor's standing to mid-table.

Benitez also likes wingers, and is frustrated that Anfield has not had the chance to see Antonio Nunez, a wide midfielder who arrived as part of Michael Owen's move to Madrid, only to injure himself before managing a game. Like Steven Gerrard, injured in the defeat at Old Trafford last month, he is two or three weeks from fitness.

The new coach set himself the task of finding the difficult balance between playing more enterprising football while keeping possession better. In terms of personnel, he was prepared to bid farewell to local favourites like Owen and Danny Murphy, asking rhetorically, "How many English players do Arsenal have?", and turning, like Arsène Wenger, to the native market he knew best. Malaga's Josemi was quickly installed at right-back (he can also perform in central defence), and later Xabi Alonso arrived from Real Sociedad for £10.7m and Luis Garcia from Barcelona for £6m. It is the latter pair who have made the greatest impression, coming to the fore once Gerrard broke his foot.

Having already had greater reward with his countrymen than Gérard Houllier did, Benitez is entitled to be happy with the way they have settled: "When I decided to sign Spanish players, I knew the kind you need in the Premiership. Josemi is aggressive, good in the air and quick. He's playing very well. Luis Garcia, who was with me in Tenerife, was a left-winger there and a right-winger or striker in Barcelona. It's very important to have the kind of player who can change positions during a game. Xabi Alonso is an international player, a good midfielder, clever, and a good professional, always trying to improve his level. If you can sign a player like that who is 22, you know it's the right decision."

Liverpool's European games have so far followed an unpredictable pattern, yet brushing aside some very ordinary Premiership opposition in front of the Kop (Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion, Norwich) has impressed the locals, who chant Benitez's name with gusto, always winning a wave in reply as he darts around the technical area. Everton supporters, scarcely able to believe the League table, have christened him "Rafa Beneath-Us". He must turn that around, preferably before the Mersey derby in December. But first the Spanish derby.

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