James Lawton: His excuses had been exhausted, his authority lost. Benitez had to go

Let's be sure about one thing - few top managers have ever met with such indulgence in the face of overwhelming evidence that their team is running down

Friday 04 June 2010 00:00

Rafa Benitez had to go. It is a reality that should not be caught up in all the angst and legitimate anger over the catastrophic American ownership of Liverpool.

This will still hold true if it should happen that one of the great clubs of Europe, including the reigning champions Internazionale, offer him the chance to rebuild the reputation that came with his success in Valencia and that extraordinary Champions League win in Istanbul five years ago.

That's the future – and maybe Benitez's chance to remake himself as a vibrant football leader rather than the befuddled, and befuddling, figure who, by the end of this last season, seemed increasingly distant from his No 1 priority of halting the slide in dressing-room morale which left Liverpool so far out of touch with the elite of the English and European game.

The present speaks for itself. Liverpool look all played out on the field.

Yes, the finances are nightmarish, the crisis of ownership no less stark than the picture painted recently by the man who was responsible for it, the former chairman and chief shareholder David Moores.

But none of this impinges ultimately on the responsibility of the coach, which is at all times to maintain the spirit and morale – and, most vital of all – the conviction of his team.

Benitez progressively failed to do this, to the point now that even the loyalist Pepe Reina admits that it is hard to be optimistic about next season and the chance that such as Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano will return from the World Cup action with the vaguest sense of renewed motivation.

Increasingly, Benitez has used the alibi of the dysfunctional ownership and his inability to make significant competitive signings.

Yet over six years he has been able to invest a conservatively estimated £250m – when all the undisclosed details of a number of transfer deals and academy acquisitions are added in – in his effort to remake Liverpool in his own image. The truth, one resisted religiously by his most passionate supporters in the stands, is that his team building has been disastrous.

In a sea of dross, he made three signings of the quality to which Anfield had become accustomed with the procession of men like Ronnie Yeats, Ian St John, Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Ian Rush. Of these, Xabi Alonso became disaffected over the years, and left at a critical point in Benitez's reign, and Torres and Mascherano had long established their position as two of the world's top players when they pulled on their Liverpool shirts.

This may be a broad brush, but then it is a big picture which, after the Champions League was snatched back from Milan in Istanbul in circumstances that rational football analysis have always deemed freakish, and the FA Cup victory over West Ham, has necessarily been painted in subdued hues.

But for a surge at the end of 2008-09 that could not be sustained, Benitez has never looked like fulfilling his central challenge of delivering a Premier League title. The case for the defence is that he has not had the means, but if you have a team that contains men like Gerrard, Torres, Mascherano, Alonso and Reina surely you have the basis for progress, surely the requirement is to put around them players of substance who begin to justify £11m here, £7m there, and all the other dribbling away of all-round quality which has left Liverpool so far off the pace.

To say that any of this is apparently evidence of extreme prejudice, of the prosecuting of a vendetta, is an extraordinary claim when you consider the terms on which all leading managers are obliged to operate.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, even Jose Mourinho, have at times all run the gauntlet of doubt. It is the nature of their business. But when such question marks have been raised against Benitez – his early obsession with rotation, his quirkish substitutions, his disastrous signings, the sense that he is often exerting nothing less than control freakery as he inhabits the technical area – he is defended with quasi-religious fervour.

Let's be very sure about one thing. Few top managers have ever met with such indulgence in the face of overwhelming evidence that their team is running down.

His railing against the restrictions placed on him in the transfer market are a familiar source of managerial discontent, but rarely have they been expressed so forcibly in the light of evidence that much of what has been available has been palpably wasted.

For many, the breaking point was surely the £17m acquisition of Alberto Aquilani, a player of talent, no doubt, but one notoriously fragile. That he should come in, at such a critical point to replace the powerful, inspiring Alonso, without any immediate possibility of helping the cause, is no doubt the single most breathtaking folly of a misbegotten season.

There were suggestions yesterday that Kenny Dalglish may be handed caretaking duties while the club pursue a leading coach who will balance the current chaos against the possibility, sooner or later, of new, financially sound ownership and the huge kudos to be drawn from some effective troubleshooting in a dressing room that appears to be homing in on rock bottom.

Of the candidates mooted so far, Guus Hiddink would bring the most vital authority. His brief tenure at Chelsea, admittedly blessed with far greater playing resources than he would inherit at Anfield, was marked above all by an ability to impose a new purpose and unity on players who had become fragmented and disenchanted under Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Hiddink's crowning gift might well have come with the winning of his second European Cup but for some bizarre officiating in the semi-final against Barcelona.

Most significantly, though, the Dutchman's most obvious knack – one which the World Cup misadventure with Russia scarcely diminishes, given all the other examples of his success across the football world – is to get players behind him, to understand their strengths and their fears.

This is the most fundamental quality in any football coach. Disastrously for Liverpool, it was one from which, in a critical season, Rafa Benitez seemed almost completely detached.

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