Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Rafael Benitez: A Missed Man at Anfield?

With Liverpool’s problems this season evidently clear for all to see, struggles in both the domestically and in Europe, their struggles and poor form were compounded by a 2-1 defeat to newly promoted Blackpool.

Manager Roy Hodgson is now under intense scrutiny in order to turn around the fortunes of one of the most prestigious clubs in football history, before his position becomes untenable.

Some are suggesting that whispers of doubt regarding his appointment in the first place, such as the 63 year old being “not a big enough name for Liverpool”, or he has “made too big of a step up” moving from the very well supported and impressive mid table main-stayers Fulham, to a club with an even bigger fan base, bigger budgets and subsequently bigger expectations; such as Liverpool, are beginning to creep up on him.

We all know that it takes time for a manager to settle into a club, bringing in the players he feels appropriate, and removing the dead wood, when at a “big name” club, the time span is significantly shorter.

Now, already, just seven games into the Premiership season, and despite concerns at injuries the sides key players; captain Steven Gerrard and star striker Fernando Torres, combined with disruptive and disgruntled owners; George Gillett and Tom Hicks still at the helm (guiding the club into more and more dept) all have equalled to underperformances on the pitch, and whispers are arising from some fans that maybe letting former boss Rafa Benitez go was a slightly hasty decision.

Although I fully believe that sometimes the best way for things, situations and people to progress or evolve, is to start afresh. This is what the Liverpool fans got once the man who had delivered an impressive array of successes during his tenure, cut short his 5 year contract (due to finish in 2014) and walk away from Anfield.

The man who had been aptly named the stereotypical “Spanish waiter” was a sort of love/hate figure at Liverpool, while a vast amount of his decisions baffled and infuriated many critics, pundits and fans alike, he undoubted managerial skill help guide Liverpool to some memorable moments during his time, etching his name in Liverpool folk law.

Benitez has a very vast and impressive managerial career, which started in his mid twenties after a short semi professional career playing in lowly Spanish football divisions. He learnt the managerial ropes with the prominent Real Madrid youth set up for around nine years before heading off into solo management taking over at Real Valladolid from 95’ to 96’, and Osasuna the following year. Both these spells were turbulent to say the least, with Benitez being sacked from both clubs. He subsequently managed second division side Extremadura for two years, gaining promotion and then relegation, before taking a year out from managing to fulfil personal aims and objectives.

This hiatus didn’t last as he was sworn back into management with Tenerife, and gaining them promotion into La Liga. This success didn’t go unnoticed as Rafa finally had the chance to highlight his true managerial ability, by managing one of the Europe’s most promising sides: Valencia. This would be a make or break opportunity for Benitez at the highest level.

Benitez grabbed at this opportunity with both hands, and after his first full season in charge, he truly showcased his excellence winning the La Liga title with Valencia, and securing Champions League football. In his second season at Valencia, his side struggled to reach the heights achieved in previous season, finishing 5th in the league. Undeterred Benitez squad, boasting the likes of Ruben Baraja, Rufete, Mista, Carlos Marchena and Roberto Ayala, helped finish his third and final season with Valencia by winning a superb double; collecting the La Liga title for a second time during his reign and a UEFA Cup trophy to boot.

With this success, a fall out occurred between Benitez and the clubs directors (something which would crop up again in the future) lead to Benitez leaving sunny Spain and accepting the advances of Liverpool and head off to England.

His reign at Liverpool was a continuation of the previous successes of former manager Gerrard Houllier, as he helped Liverpool finish runners-up in the FA Cup, losing 3-2 to Chelsea.

But most impressively was winning the Champions League in his very 1st season in charge, thanks due that wondergoal from captain Steven Gerrard in the group stages against Olympiakos, unbelievable team spirit and bravery shown throughout the competition beating Bayer Leverkusan, Juventus and that which helped them overcome Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in a thrilling 1-0 win in the semi-finals to book a meeting with AC Milan in Istanbul.

Before the game, it was evidently clear that this would be the biggest match of Benitez’s career, with Liverpool aiming for a fifth European trophy, and AC Milan aiming for a seventh.

AC Milan bragged a team with talented world class individuals including Paolo Maldini, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo, Hernan Crespo and Filippo Inzaghi making them clear favourites. Benitez’s side knew their great team work and composure which saw them reach the final needed to be called upon in order to upset the odds.

The odds were shortened however during the half time interval, after goals from Maldini, and a brace from Hernan Crespo gave Milan a comfortable 3-0 lead and left Liverpool reeling.

At half time, Benitez who had already substituted attacking midfielder Harry Kewell for Vladimir Smicer, abandoned his 4-4-1-1 formation, and opted for a 3-4-2-1 formation in order to salvage anything from the match. This was ever seen as the act of a man who had nothing left to lose, or a stroke of tactical genius.

With Hamann and Xabi Alonso anchoring the midfield, and allow Smicer, Gerrard, Luis Garcia and Riise to offer attacking options. Within 15 minutes of the second half, goals from Gerrard, Smicer and Alonso saw Liverpool complete an unbelievable comeback making it 3-3.

The match continued unto the 120th minute of extra time, although both sides had chances to win, the only way to settle the tie once and for all, would be through penalty kicks.

Hamann, Cisse, and Smicer all scored for Liverpool, while Serginho, Pirlo and Shevchenko all missed for Milan leading to a 3-2 penalty victory, while the rest as they say; is history. This was to be Liverpool and Benitez’s swansong.

After this magical night, it would be believed Liverpool would be able to finally challenge domestically, however this wasn’t to be as they finished 3rd in the league, but managed to still collect the FA Cup trophy.

In the 06/07 season, Liverpool still struggled domestically again, an ongoing saga in Liverpool’s Premier league history. It was not all doom and gloom though, as Benitez amazingly helped his side return to the summit of European football, the Champions League final, but lost to a Kaka inspired AC Milan, as they extracted their revenge winning 2-1.

Domestically, Benitez proved his grit and belief that Liverpool were finally capable of competing for the Premier League, by guiding his side to the top of the table through large portions of the 08/09 season, unfortunately missing out on the title finishing 4 points behind Manchester United and 2nd in the Premiership with a club record 85 points.

The highlight of the campaign being a memorable 4-1 victory over rivals, and eventual champions; Manchester United at Old Trafford, and it was believed that the following season, they would make that step up and finally achieve the dream of finally collecting a Premiership title.

This however would not be the case, as after the strained relationship between the owners and Benitez came to a head, while the apparent lack of funds being made available to him, along with the sale of key player Xabi Alonso, saw the 09/10 season Liverpool get the headlines for all the wrong reason and seemingly ended up being a consolatory season, culminated in the club finishing a lowly 7th place in the league, and failing to qualify for the Champions League.

With relationship with the fans at breaking point due to the numerous transfers made by Benitez over the last 6 years, the sale of big name players, a believed £229,600,000 spent on transfers, strange odd substitutions and tactic decisions, a rocky relationship with fellow managers, and being beaten semi-finalists in the Europa League, losing to eventual winners Athletico Madrid, when Liverpool were consider favourites, ultimately saw Benitez’s reign come to an end.

With this history behind him, Benitez some would suggest made a step up club wise; taking over at current European champions Inter Milan. While the current LMA Manager of the year was selected, and at the time seemed the most reasonable choice, to take over the red side of Merseyside.

His slow start echo’s similarities to that of Rafael Benitez’s first year in charge, as even the Spaniard also had somewhat of a rocky start exiting early in the FA Cup, while current boss Hodgson’s side exited early in this seasons League Cup; losing 4-2 on penalties to league two side Northampton.

Then it was 1-0 loss to lower league opponents Burnley, thanks to a calamitous Djimi Traore own goal. Less than nine months later however though, both Traore and Benitez collected a Champions League winner’s medal.

Given the time, Hodgson could go one step further than he did with Fulham last year and lead Liverpool to European success in the continents second biggest trophy; which would be the shining light at the end of what looks like an otherwise dark season ahead.

I believe that although the unappreciated and somewhat misconstrued Spaniard may seem to be missed on Anfield, these opinions are being raised merely out of frustrations. Also the chants for former manager and Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish to take over the reins again are also premature.

For me; Hodgson needs time for the current squad to get use to the training methods, as well as his tactics, simply because they have been playing under the same type of management, and the same way for the past 6 years. This is what the fans on Merseyside are used to.

Understandably with the frustrations evident, and with Hodgson himself admitting that the club are now in a “relegation battle”, I wouldn’t go as far as saying I can agree or even envisage that, because I believe that Liverpool will overcome this rocky start and be able to mount a push for a top six finish.

The Anfield faithful are some of the best supporters in Europe, but they must practice the virtue of patience, and fully get behind their manager and the players, as their frustrations do lie with the board, they must continue to direct these frustrations towards the owners, rather than make Roy Hodgson the scapegoat.

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