Xabi Alonso and Rafael Benitez share a language, an employer and the mantle of Liverpool's most successful Spanish imports, but a temptation to gamble on their FA Cup debuts demonstrated that divisions do exist in the fortunes of the stylish midfielder from San Sebastian and his astute manager from Madrid.
The Liverpool playmaker produced the most audacious moment of this season's third round when he dispossessed Luton Town goalkeeper Marlon Beresford in the final seconds of an enthralling contest at Kenilworth Road, ignored Steven Gerrard's demands for a five-yard pass and, from inside his own half, scored with a display of long-range accuracy that would have made Pele wince. For Alonso, Benitez and Liverpool, however, it was only a short step towards redemption in a competition they have come to appreciate the hard way.
Alonso had to wait almost 18 months for his first taste of the FA Cup having been among the notable omissions from last season's third-round débâcle at Burnley. On a waterlogged pitch at Turf Moor his manager had selected a midfield comprising Antonio Nunez, John Welsh, Igor Biscan and Stephen Warnock while insisting he fully understood the trophy's esteem in English affection. A wretched performance epitomised by a comical own goal from Djimi Traoré suggested otherwise. Today, only Warnock remains at the club.
The reaction to Benitez's first FA Cup selection veered only between vehement and vitriolic. Derided in more extreme quarters as another failed foreign appointment by Liverpool the newly installed, championship-winning manager from Valencia was informed his Anfield honeymoon was over when, of course, he was able to demonstrate in Istanbul four months later that he had merely climbed out of the marital bed for a glass of water. The Liverpool manager has never used the Champions' League success to justify his rotation at Turf Moor and, though he only appreciated the significance of the FA Cup after the event, Alonso never expects him to.
"When we lost at Burnley I did not realise how important the FA Cup was and how much it meant to people," admits the midfielder, who takes his impressive passing range to Portsmouth in round four tomorrow. "I knew all about its reputation, because I used to follow it back home in Spain and watch the semi-finals and the final at Wembley.
"I remember Cantona's goal against Liverpool in 1996. Not good. You could tell it was special from watching games like that, but I only realised how special after that defeat. People round the city were saying, 'This is the FA Cup. There's no way you should have lost that game. It's just not done for Liverpool to go out in the first round [in which they play].' I heard that wherever I went in the city and that is what shocked me most.
"We are totally committed to trying to win the FA Cup this season. We all realise now what it means in terms of prestige for the club and the supporters. We are determined to go as far as we can. It will be a tough at Portsmouth, but we all want to make a impact this season after what happened at Burnley. There were a lot of changes and players out injured at that time, and an away tie against a Championship team was always going to be difficult but I was surprised by what followed."
It was a surprise to many Anfield observers that a player renowned for exquisite distribution should elect to shoot from a seemingly impossible distance with Liverpool holding a slender 4-3 lead at Luton on 7 January. Gerrard was clearly seen lambasting his midfield colleague for not retaining possession as the ball delicately rolled into Beresford's net but Alonso, who had earlier scored from almost 30 yards to level the score at 3-3, was operating from experience.
"I have scored a few goals from the half-way line before, but they were slightly different. I chipped both of them over the goalkeeper when I was about 16 or 17 and playing for Real Sociedad's youth team," he reveals. "At Luton I knew straight away that I had a chance to score.
"As soon as I took the ball round the keeper and looked up, there was a clear sight of goal, even though I was inside my own half. I know some of my team-mates were expecting a pass. I was aware of Stevie to my left and Harry [Kewell] on my right, but I was confident I could do it. I didn't hear Stevie, but someone told me it looked really funny on television to see him shouting at me, then applauding when it went in."
This summer's arrival of Mohamed Sissoko from Valencia has given Alonso the protection to venture forward and increase his goals tally from last season's three to five, though he gives more credit for an almost seamless transition into English football to his fondness for the city and club he joined for £10.7m in August 2004. Though a proud Basque who followed his father, Perico, into the professional ranks of his home-town club Real Sociedad - a family tradition maintained by his older brother, Mikel - the midfielder was enticed to Liverpool by Benitez's desire to make him a central part of Anfield's reconstruction. He remains the manager's most expensive acquisition to date.
Manchester United were among the early candidates for Alonso's signature, and how their midfield could do with his artistry now, while strong interest from Real Madrid was doomed to failure once Benitez used the influence of his loyal Basque assistant, Pako Ayesteran, to win the player's trust.
Liverpool's new management team were surprise guests at Goodison Park as Everton hosted Real Sociedad in their final pre-season friendly of summer 2004 but did not reappear for the second half. Neither did Alonso, and a week later he was sitting in the stands at White Hart Lane as a Liverpool player, making notes on Benitez's first game in the Premiership and then presenting his manager with a detailed analysis of the 1-1 draw.
"I am quite settled here. I have got to know the city. I feel settled in the team, and I am really comfortable in my surroundings," he explains. "You just can't help getting swept along by the passion of the fans. You can feel how much it means to them. For a lot of people here, it is like a religion. That is one of the main differences between football in England and football in Spain.
"I prefer the approach of English fans in that respect. Particularly at Anfield. It is a pleasure to play at such a stadium in front of our fans. It is a motivation. It inspires you. The tempo and physical contact here is different, but the more games you play, the more you get used to it."
Alonso requires no interpreter for this interview, he never has. The 24-year-old conducted his first press conference at Liverpool in perfect English and embarrassed many journalists present by discussing "the psychology of English football", before revealing that he had resisted the more immediate wealth of the Bernabeu and Old Trafford because the ideal of a long-term project at Liverpool held more appeal. His reward arrived ahead of schedule when the last goal he scored to level a game at 3-3 enabled Liverpool to overcome Milan and claim a fifth European Cup.
That Champions' League triumph was not merely the first honour of Alonso's professional career, it was the first winner's medal of his career full stop. His only previous experience of a cup final was as a nine-year-old playing alongside his close friend and now Everton rival, Mikel Arteta, for their local village team, Antiguoko, but despite his rapid elevation to the status of European champion the eloquent midfielder insists there has been no profound transformation within the Liverpool squad.
"Maybe winning the Champions' League has had a positive effect on us, although it is difficult to say exactly what the difference is between now and last season," admits Alonso, although, as he speaks, Gerrard is in the adjacent room at the club's Melwood training complex having his photograph taken with the European Cup for the official Liverpool magazine. "Every individual feels more confident when the team are performing well as a unit. We are all supporting each other and playing for each other, and we all have the same idea of what we want.
"There is a great unity in the team, and I feel the Champions' League final has had an impact on the confidence we are taking on to the pitch. I am certain it helped when we were 3-1 down at Luton in the last round. That was not an ideal situation, but we all felt we could turn it round. We were able to draw on that extra self-belief, and I know our confidence will still be high when we go to Chelsea next weekend.
"We may have lost to Manchester United at Old Trafford but we know we are working properly. I am pretty sure that because of the Champions' League and our improvement this season we do have more self-belief. We believe we can play at the same level as Manchester United and Chelsea, and we will have a good opportunity to show that next weekend."
Liverpool's run of 12 Premiership games unbeaten came to a painful end last Sunday when Rio Ferdinand's stoppage-time header sailed beyond Jose Reina and yet it underlines their gradual improvement throughout this campaign that they will head to Stamford Bridge unperturbed. Benitez made it his priority this season to close the 37-point gap that Chelsea had established over their Champions' League conquerors last year and, despite the Londoners' outstanding consistency preventing a genuine challenge for the championship, Liverpool are taking solace in their progress, although, as events at Old Trafford proved, they are still a few pieces short of a title-winning unit.
"We were disappointed at missing a great chance to win at Old Trafford," Alonso insists, "but what happened shouldn't affect us too much because we controlled the game and our performance showed the level we have reached in away games this season.
"Last season we lost at Old Trafford, Highbury and Stamford Bridge but, even though we lost again on Sunday, we showed how we have improved a lot this season.
"Next week we have another big game at Stamford Bridge and we must do the same. We are much closer to them now than we were last season. We look stronger and more solid this year, the only disappointment is the number of games we drew early in the season and which prevented us from being close to Chelsea from the start."
It is the FA Cup and Portsmouth that are occupying Alonso's thoughts today, however. Fratton Park witnessed a fifth-round replay defeat for Liverpool in February 2004 and a performance so anaemic that Anfield officials promptly commenced the search for Gérard Houllier's replacement while issuing public denials to the contrary. In terms of their domestic fortunes, Benitez's Liverpool can ill afford a repeat.
"For me, the best way of forgetting what happened at Burnley would be to take our supporters as far as we can this time. That would be the perfect way of making amends," admits the midfielder whose foresight does not only apply to the football pitch. As he says: "The first final at Wembley will be really special but first we have to make sure we have a ticket for it, then we will have to wait for the builders."
Goals from nowhere After Alonso's stunner at Luton, five more long-distance belters
* PAT JENNINGS (Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester Utd, Charity Shield, 1967)
He played more than 1,000 games in all, and was known for his huge, shovel-like hands. But the goalkeeper's real claim to fame was scoring from a drop-kick at Old Trafford for Spurs, the Cup- winners, against champions United. His kick, with the wind behind, bounced high ... and over Alex Stepney's head.
* PELE (Brazil v Czechoslovakia, World Cup, 1970)
The most memorable long-range effort of all. Hosts Brazil were being held 1-1 in their first game of the tournament when Pele (left) turned inside his own half and spotted a slight opening. His beautiful shot had everything - power, grace and the perfect trajectory - but, alas, not pinpoint accuracy. He missed. Useless.
* JOHN SALAKO (Nottm Forest v Crystal Palace January 1991)
Forest goalkeeper Mark Crossley provoked the wrath of Brian Clough when he directed a poor clearance straight to Salako in the FA Cup replay and watched helplessly as the England left-winger returned a right-footed shot from inside his own half to level the game at 2-2.
* NAYIM (Arsenal v Real Zaragoza, May 1995)
The 1995 European Cup-Winners' Cup finalists were preparing for penalties as the contest was poised at 1-1. Then the former Tottenham player tried his luck from distance and became the first, but not the last, to discover David Seaman's vulnerability while back-peddling.
* DAVID BECKHAM (Wimbledon v Manchester Utd, August 1996)
The ball was not the only thing to be launched that day at Selhurst Park. Having executed that exquisite chip over the embarrassed Neil Sullivan, the dashing young United midfielder (left) stretched out his arms and basked in a nation's acclaim. And a marketing man's dream was born.Reuse content