Rafael Benitez admitted yesterday that his competitiveness extends to refusing to allow his elder daughter Claudia to beat him at computer games but it was another more intimidating adversary with whom he found himself in disagreement yesterday. Benitez was back on the attack against Arsène Wenger, telling the Arsenal manager that it was a myth he had assembled a team of overachieving young players.
While Wenger railed against those who would write off his team in the Champions League and the Premier League, Benitez was quietly offering a radical take on the theory that the Arsenal manager has created a team out of nothing this season. Benitez can be the Premier League's most covertly controversial manager when he is in the mood and – with his Champions League tie against Arsenal in the balance tonight at Anfield – he attempted to demolish the notion that Wenger had turned a team of unknowns into one of Europe's best.
Both teams face a barren end to the season should they fail tonight, although it will be Benitez who faces the more exacting examination of his methods should his team go out. Yesterday he struck back at the notion that Wenger, who he outspent in the transfer market by around £40m in the summer, was working miracles at Arsenal.
Listing Arsenal's senior players individually, Benitez made the point that Arsenal had "enough experienced players". He said: "Manuel Almunia is not young, Kolo Touré is not young, Emmanuel Adebayor is not young – he's certainly not 18 years old. Alexander Hleb is not young and neither is Tomas Rosicky. They have enough experience in the squad and enough good players. You can talk about [Theo] Walcott, but Cesc Fabregas has played four years at the maximum level.
"I can understand when you talk about Armand Traoré [who played against Liverpool on Saturday] but the rest of the players like Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini have played a lot at the maximum level. They played a final two years ago and they have enough experience in this competition because they have been playing in the knockout stage for a long time. It is easy to talk about young players but I think they have enough experience."
In reality the average age of Arsenal's likely starting XI tonight is between 24 and 25 years old while Liverpool's is 27. It was instructive to hear Benitez so vehement in his belief that the Arsenal manager is not the brilliant team builder that he has been portrayed as in some quarters. Nevertheless, of the two men it will undoubtedly be Wenger who emerges from defeat with the least damage done to his reputation.
With so much at stake again in the Champions League, Benitez was still relaxed enough to discuss his first European Cup memories, which was the night some of his former team-mates from the Real Madrid youth team were defeated by Liverpool in Paris in 1981. The Alan Kennedy goal that beat Real that night was a personal disaster for two of Benitez's erstwhile peers, goalkeeper Agustin Rodriguez and defender Rafael Cortes, who were both at fault.
"The 'keeper was Agustin my team-mate, and there were other players who I had played with or knew and was close to," Benitez said. "Liverpool ruined my day then. The other wins before, I was too young. It's difficult to say [where Benitez's winning mentality comes from]. I remember when I was a child I hated losing any game, chess or Stratego [his favourite military strategy game]. So that has always been in my mind but clearly after 20 years winning, or being part of a system that is normally winning, your mentality is to compete to win. You should talk to my wife, she always says that I never let the children win at anything. Sometimes I might let the little one win, but not the elder one."
He has built a career on winning trophies but Benitez said that he would not allow what he believed was the progress of his club to founder on tonight's result. The Liverpool manager is convinced that he has taken the club in the right direction. "If you lose, people will say it's not the right way," he said, "but I think everyone knows we are going in the right direction."
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