The Ruud Gullit verdict: Rafa has had a great season - win or lose

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The Independent Football

The man who coined the term "sexy football" does not expect next Wednesday's Champions' League final in Istanbul to be overflowing with that delicious commodity. Even the combination of respect for English teams fostered by spending four largely enjoyable years in this country, and happy memories of life a decade earlier with Milan, cannot quite convince Ruud Gullit, now managing Feyenoord, that we are about to be treated to one of the great European Cup finals. Nevertheless, as one of the pioneer foreign managers in England, he insists that Rafael Benitez has done a fine job in difficult circumstances at Liverpool, regardless of what transpires in the Ataturk Stadium.

The man who coined the term "sexy football" does not expect next Wednesday's Champions' League final in Istanbul to be overflowing with that delicious commodity. Even the combination of respect for English teams fostered by spending four largely enjoyable years in this country, and happy memories of life a decade earlier with Milan, cannot quite convince Ruud Gullit, now managing Feyenoord, that we are about to be treated to one of the great European Cup finals. Nevertheless, as one of the pioneer foreign managers in England, he insists that Rafael Benitez has done a fine job in difficult circumstances at Liverpool, regardless of what transpires in the Ataturk Stadium.

The competition has always held a special place in Gullit's heart, earning him two of his most treasured medals. In two successive years, 1989 and 1990, he missed much of Milan's season with drastic knee problems but returned just in time to help them become European champions by beating Steaua Bucharest 4-0 (two goals by Gullit) and Benfica 1-0.

As well as his fellow countrymen Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, a colleague in that team was Carlo Ancelotti, the current coach, who suggested that the class of 2005 are superior to that of 15 years earlier for their individual quality. For Gullit, who was in London as an ambassador for the Red Cross, promoting a new book of photographs taken by football folk*, the comparison is: "Here you have more individual strength, while in our time it was more like a team strength with individuals who could make a difference. The individual was working very hard for the whole team, the tactics were all based round the team."

While admiring many of that current crop of individuals, especially the Brazilian Kaka ("a very good player, strong, quick, young, with a nose for goals"), he felt they showed their vulnerability in the semi-final matches against his Dutch League rivals PSV Eindhoven, who have just sewn up another national title. "I think PSV were very unlucky; they played better than Milan and it was very hard to lose it in the last minute. But the good thing is Dutch football has had a lift."

There was much interest too for Gullit in the other semi-final, in which he predicted his former club Chelsea might have more of a struggle than many anticipated. "I wasn't surprised by the result, I said before that it would be very hard game for Chelsea, because Liverpool would be very hard to score against. People said Chelsea were overall the better team, but you have to be clever sometimes and that's what Liverpool did."

And the implications of that for the final? "You can't blame Liverpool for the games against Chelsea, but I don't think it will be a very exciting game. You never know, it depends on who scores the first goal and in what minute. But it's counter-attack football. It's a difficult game to predict. The difference is that Milan have players who can score something out of nothing. So you have to be on your toes, spot on for 90 minutes or more."

Liverpool, he believes, are conditioned to that by the nature of Premiership football, even if more and more observers here believe it to be resembling, say, the Dutch League, with the same three clubs in contention every year. The view from Rotterdam is: "You can lose against any team [in England] and you have to be spot on every week. That makes you more alert and aware for every game, and you need that. If it's too easy, sometimes you can get sloppy the next game than if every week you have to work hard."

Why, then, have Benitez's team not made a better fist of things in the League? "He knew after a while they could only focus on one thing, not both. They had a lot of injuries, and it was difficult to spread over both competitions. You need a large squad for that, as you have for instance with Chelsea or Milan. At some stage you're going to have difficulties. The championship is totally different, you have so many games, injuries, people out of form and things like that. They didn't have that strength in depth so they could only focus on one thing. The strikers have been injured, [Djibril] Cissé broke his leg. And the worst part is still having to win even though you haven't got the players. So if they lose this final, don't say it was a bad season, it was a great season they had under the circumstances."

There speaks the newly pragmatic coach, back to dealing with the hard realities as seen from the training ground and the boardroom rather than the television studio. He has kept an intrigued eye on developments at Stamford Bridge, and is generous in acknowledging Jose Mourinho's achievements with the sort of financial backing that might have enabled Gullit to push the club higher than sixth place on Ken Bates's money in his only full season. "Mourinho bought the players he needed that were suited for his way of playing, and that is clever and nothing to do with money. He didn't go for Shevchenko, didn't go for Ronaldo, didn't go for Zidane. Nobody knew [Didier] Drogba, nobody knew [Arjen] Robben. Joe Cole was a good player but not the best player in England. So the players bought were not really stars. I like his style. One person like this makes everybody happier, so cherish it. He already did extremely well for Chelsea to win the championship, so next year he's going to go for the Champions' League. He was very close to it. But it's going to be very difficult, because the other teams are not sitting still as well."

Feyenoord will not be competing against them, condemned as they are to the Uefa Cup again after finishing a distant and rather disappointing fourth in Holland. But Gullit appears to be enjoying his new role, despite a certain nostalgia for English football: "I miss it sometimes, yes. Things have changed, with a lot more foreigners. The English players are playing much better because of the experience and the foreigners are playing better because of the English players, so the level is higher than when I arrived.

"I've progressed as a coach and every day you learn. The difference between the countries is that here if you say as a coach, 'Do this', everybody does it. In Holland, they will all say, 'Why?' But that's the Dutch mentality."

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