The best way to defy your critics

By Chris Beesley on Feb 20, 08 11:42 PM in Journalists

IT WOULD be an overreaction to suggest the writing was on the wall for Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez going into this game but the graffiti daubed around Melwood yesterday showed just how frustrated many of the club's supporters have become.

Esteemed coaches like the Spaniard should not be judged by mob rule and such obscenities do not portray much intelligence or tactical acumen but the message to the man in the Anfield hot seat was a blunt and simple one - a plea to play his best team.

Although gambling somewhat by preferring Brazilian rookie Lucas to the experienced Xabi Alonso in midfield, Benitez, as expected, brought back the big guns for this heavyweight clash and was rewarded handsomely with a potentially historic win after his patient side saw off 10-man Internazionale with a two-goal salvo in the final five minutes.

 

Following the FA Cup humiliation to Barnsley on Saturday, Benitez was given a chance to restore some pride at Anfield by keeping beleaguered Liverpool's season alive with a tie in his security blanket competition.


As the Spaniard pointed out to his detractors after the last-gasp defeat to Championship opposition at the weekend, few managers have a European Cup success on their curriculum vitae but it's success in this season's Champions League final in Moscow that will ultimately help him to retain his position, not his past glories in Istanbul.


Since arriving on these shores, Benitez has shown the kind of consistency in club football's elite tournament not enjoyed by Liverpool sides for a generation.


It's thanks to his remarkable achievement of leading his new team to victory in his first season in 2005 that the former Valencia coach enjoys such cult status among the majority of the club's support. But having achieved such a benchmark of excellence so soon, Benitez has ensured that expectation levels remain so high - as if they ever seriously dip at a club that has collected so much silverware both at home and abroad.


But for many years now, Liverpool have relished these big European nights which often bring the best out of their team and supporters and with Benitez's in-depth knowledge and understanding of the continental game, the alliance in this competition has so far been a fruitful one with two finals reached in three seasons.


This time a year ago, Liverpool, in similar fashion to now, were already well out of the Premier League title race so nobody gave them a chance against the superstars of Barcelona.


Yet, on the back of a bizarre training camp spat, Benitez's side produced their performance of the season to stun the Nou Camp.


In contrast, it has been a lack of consistency in the domestic game that has raised serious question marks for the first time over the Spaniard's stewardship.


The Champions League trophy was lifted using a team generally comprised of Gerard Houllier's players - indeed the Frenchman entered the jubilant Liverpool dressing room after the final to congratulate the team in an awkward fashion akin to that of an estranged father.


Now, almost three years on, with the squad supposedly strengthened with his own signings, including a genuinely world-class centre-forward in Fernando Torres, at home Liverpool seemingly remain no closer to challenging for their first title of the Premier League era.


In fairness, if you're going to appoint an overseas manager then he should expect to be given time to adjust to his new league but in this respect Benitez is still playing catch up to the likes of Jose Mourinho (first season) and Arsene Wenger (second season) who fashioned table-topping sides at Chelsea and Arsenal respectively.


Ironically, Liverpool's opposition last night, Internazionale, are a club who are currently dominating their national league but still crave the European success that tantalisingly eludes them.


After a similar lean patch to Liverpool's - their last title before success by default due to Juventus' match-fixing scandal in 2006 came in 1989 as opposed to Liverpool's in 1990, Inter have re-emerged as Serie A's dominant force over the past couple of seasons.


Yet they have not conquered Europe since 1965 - when Helenio Herrera's side controversially eliminated Bill Shankly's Liverpool, playing in the competition for the first time, en route to the final - and in the subsequent years they have seen city rivals Milan add a further six successes to their 1963 triumph.


The architect of one of those victories, new England coach Fabio Capello was in the stands at Anfield to view this 'Anglo-Italian' encounter but there were only two Englishmen in Liverpool's starting line-up and only Steven Gerrard is available for his team following Jamie Carragher's international retirement. While Capello bemoans the lack of English players in the Premier League compared to the number of Spaniards in La Liga where he coached Real Madrid this season, Inter, the outstanding club side in his native country who are current world champions, fielded just a single Italian - Marco Materazzi - in their XI and he only lasted half an hour before bowing out in similar fashion to his last appearance on Merseyside with a red card.


Following several weeks of disappointment domestically, Liverpool knew that victory last night was imperative to keep their season alive but following this latest European conquest who's to say that Benitez's won't be leading his troops into Moscow come May for another crack at the big one.

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