Benitez baffles friends and foes alike with his left-field decisions
Once again Rafa Benitez, the enigmatic Madrileno, is occupying that part of the European football bullring which is neither one thing nor the other; not the expensive seats in the shade or the cheap ones in the blazing sun.
Yet again he provokes the critical question: is he too busy trying to prove how clever he is, how tactically aware, that the relatively sweet simplicities imposed this week by his rivals Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have left his Liverpool looking distinctly third-placed - and maybe even third- rate - in the Premiership challenge for Champions League success? That certainly was an impression difficult to avoid this week when United overcame the brilliance of Milan's Kaka to take a one-goal advantage to San Siro next week - and Chelsea might easily have added at least two goals to the same edge they defend at Anfield.
Neither United nor Chelsea were flawless - perhaps inevitably in the case of United with their desperately weakened defence - but both had something that was plainly missing from Liverpool's essentially insipid effort.
They were armed with certainties, of both purpose and personnel. With the possible exception of the owner's folly, Andrei Shevchenko, Chelsea were at optimum strength in terms of available players - and armed with a basic and proven game plan: playing to the immense and magnificently enduring presence of Didier Drogba. By comparison, Liverpool looked rather as though they had met up in the cafeteria at Lime Street station and made some rapid reintroductions.
Even Rafa's warmest admirers must have been tempted to call Benitez and say: "Please, Rafa, talk us through the selection of Bolo Zenden..." It was, his warmest critics would say, pure Benitez; a lunge, literally, into left field. For many it had a similar befuddling impact as his decision to draft a plainly half-fit Harry Kewall into the 2005 final in Istanbul. That move was aborted, amid some embarrassment, before half-time, but, quite incomprehensibly, Zenden got the full 90 minutes this week. A player of tidy skill and great experience, no doubt, he had the concentrated impact of a jar of tomato purée.
Peter Crouch, was given a mere 38 minutes to inject a little more threat to Petr Cech's goal, which he promptly did, and Jermaine Pennant, who scored so spectacularly against Chelsea earlier this season, was injected with just eight minutes to go. Another neglected possibility was moving Craig Bellamy, the catalyst, albeit one of some malignancy, at the Nou Camp, out to the left when Crouch appeared.
Bellamy, who operates naturally on the left, certainly would have had the pace to inflict on Paulo Ferreira something more than Zenden demanded, which was routine and relatively risk-free running along the right flank of Chelsea's defence.
No one offers lightly a list of options to a coach who has worked his way into the elite of Europe, and with impeccable credentials when you consider his work at both Valencia and Anfield, but nor is it easy to ignore the accumulation of contradictions in his short reign on Merseyside.
Mourinho was withering, and typically self-serving, in his pre-match review of Benitez's track record, pointing out the huge disparity between knockout success in the Champions League and FA Cup and consistent, and sometimes shocking, underperformance in the Premiership. But however unsavoury the pitch of the Special One's diatribe, the thrust of it was not exactly discredited in the Stamford Bridge action.
Chelsea looked at least a street ahead of Liverpool in the matter of cohesion and self-confidence and who could not suspect again that part of the reason was the sharply different approach of the managers to rotation.
For Mourinho, still fighting on four fronts, it is an expediency; for Benitez, an obsession. The effect was plain enough to remind you of the classic theory of Bill Shankly, who once won a title with 14 players. He declared that a manager had two options: he picked his players, and then the tactics; or the tactics, and then his players. It all depended, of course, on the quality of his players and for the moment, before the great American investment in Anfield kicks in, Benitez may argue, at least privately, that he still has to follow the second course.
A shade of odds-on now suggests a United-Chelsea final, an underpinning of Premiership strength that has taken a long time coming but one that finally has the dramatic potential to provide a classic collision of football values: the width and the élan of Ferguson and the narrower, but still ferociously applied focus of Mourinho.
At Anfield, just as much as San Siro,there will be visceral objection to the forecast and with such narrow margins in force, both places could easily become the graveyards of logic. Mourinho, not without a certain amount of circumstantial evidence, vehemently suggests this was so two years ago. No doubt his need for revenge will be expressed venomously enough in the next few days, but quite how confidently is another matter. There is one thing he knows he or his players cannot do. It is to read the mind of Rafa Benitez. But then who can?
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