Blame, lies and broken promises at Liverpool
Rafa Benitez will get up this morning, take in the magnificent views of the Dee estuary from his home on the Wirral and spend time with his wife, Montse, and daughters, Claudia and Agata. Then he will sit down in his living room to watch Liverpool take on Manchester United in the Premier League - and spend the entire match analysing his former team. It is a habit that, for Benitez, is impossible to break.
Having been an intrinsic part of the biggest fixture in English football for six years, his absence from the cast list seems odd but Benitez, who has returned with his family to England after what became an acrimonious six-month stint at Inter Milan, is adjusting to a new life. When he watches Liverpool, however, he reverts to type.
'The other day I was watching a Liverpool game with my wife and I was saying, "Now this player will kick the ball long, this one short",' he says, as he nurses a soft drink at his local restaurant. 'With one player, I was right four times in a row. But it was very easy because I know the team so well.'
It is eight months since he left Liverpool following six years at the club that are still the cause of contention. A glorious Champions League victory, another final, an FA Cup win and a UEFA Super Cup and consistent qualification for the Champions League are to his credit; some dubious signings and a backdrop of endless infighting between owners and the executives register on the debit side. Yet, for now, the Spaniard is content with his life.
With his family back in their English home - eightyear- old Agata barely knows any other - he is enjoying his first extended break from the game in 13 years. Even so, the job is never truly far away. As he talks in the restaurant, he appropriates salt and pepper pots to demonstrate the virtues of zonal marking.
'It's really strange to be relaxed but now I'm watching games in a different way,' he says. 'You are trying to take notes, analyse things, but it is not the same as when you need to be ready for the next game. You can enjoy the football a little bit more. But you know you have to be ready, because we have had some offers from abroad, though for now it is better to be calm and choose the right team.'
There are, of course, constant reminders of his status in English football. On Tuesday night he took in Chelsea's game against Manchester United and witnessed Sir Alex Ferguson's verbal assault of referee Martin Atkinson. For a man almost as famous for what became known as Rafa's rant as for his Champions League heroics, it was a familiar moment.
When Benitez launched his now notorious attack on Ferguson, just over two years ago, his side were top of the table, mounting the club's most credible title challenge for 18 years. And Benitez's principal fear was that Ferguson was escaping punishment for undermining referees.
'I knew that they [United] had some problems, that we were winning and top of the league and they were under pressure,' says Benitez. 'I just wanted a level playing field until the end of the season. But, now in football, the more you shout the more famous and more important you become and the more people seem to take notice of you. I think we have to have respect. The example we give to the children is really important. If you are a referee, it's not easy because everyone wants to win and so there will be cheating. The problem is that the people who are doing the right thing [by respecting referees] have to have some benefit. And to the people who are not doing this, someone has to say: "Enough is enough".'
Pointing out the dominance of Ferguson in English football - and the fear the authorities appear to have of punishing him - can be a dangerous business, inviting further hostility. Benitez dismisses the theory that his attack on United's manager marked a turning point in the race for the league title that season, which in the end saw Liverpool finish second, four points behind United. But he adds wryly: 'Before then, I had a good relationship with him.'
That, of course, was before Benitez became a threat. Yet it was a threat that could not be sustained. Following Liverpoool's second place, hopes were raised higher than at any time since Liverpool's last title win in 1990. But the club endured a debacle of a season, finishing seventh, their lowest position for 11 years. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Benitez attempts to address the myriad issues that undermined that campaign.
A persistent complaint throughout his reign was his managerial style, which was reputedly cool towards his players. Benitez is genuinely bemused by that claim. Yet the tales have become legend.
Steven Gerrard, having produced a performance in an FA Cup final comparable to Stanley Matthews, joked that he still failed to get a 'well done' from Benitez. Fernando Torres wrote that a day after the birth of his first daughter he received belated congratulations from Benitez, only to realise the praise was for attacking the post at a corner rather than for his new fatherhood.
'I was surprised that they said I was too distant,' says Benitez. 'Every day at Liverpool I spent 15 minutes in the physio room talking to players who were injured. I know what it means to be injured and spend six months training on your own. But I [also] say, "You can do better". I push, I push, I push. It's my style and I think that Gerrard, Torres, Reina, these players can always give something more because they are top-class players, mentally, physically and technically. So I try to push them. The approach with other players is different. When they don't have that level you have to say, "OK, fine, well done". But with top players you have to push them.'
The Torres anecdote upsets Benitez. 'It's not true,' he insists. 'We had been practising a movement, where we attacked the near post. Then against Chelsea, he attacked the near post and we scored. Straight after the game - straight after the game, not a day later - I went to see him and said, "Well done. Attacking the near post!" 'In his book, he says it was a day later, not after the game. I asked Fernando, "Why did you write this?" They changed the time of when I said this but it gets repeated and repeated and people think it's true.'
Of the team he left, the one inherited first by Roy Hodgson and now by Kenny Dalglish, he is bullish. Although he admits there were mistakes in the transfer market, he says they were due to the risks he had to take because of the financial squeeze on the club. In 2008 Liverpool's interest payments on the club's debt had risen to £36.5million; by the next year they were £41m. The club were making huge losses.
Benitez says: 'We had the confidence we could win the league but you have to wheel and deal. You cannot bring in two or three top-class players if you don't have the money. You have to sell. We sold Xabi Alonso and bought Glen Johnson, Alberto Aquilani and Sotirios Kyrgiakos. We [should have] had money but I couldn't use it because we had to meet the interest payments. We had one top-class player who was our target, Fiorentina's Stevan Jovetic. As far as I was concerned, we had the money for him in our budget. But then the owners said: "No, no, we don't have the money". Then he scored against us in the Champions League to help knock us out! If you have your budget and you know that is happening, fine. But my budget was always given to me as a net figure [after taxes] for wage negotiation. But in the last year it was gross - a massive difference - but I didn't know. No one told me it had changed.'
Senior players quickly cottoned on to the financial restraints and some became disillusioned. Torres, whose form collapsed because of injury and frustration, was among them. 'I was very clear and honest with him,' says Benitez. 'And to be fair, he was telling me, "If we don't spend money, we cannot compete against the top sides".'
Torres has since spoken of broken promises that drove him to leave Liverpool for Chelsea and Benitez says: 'Obviously the things that the owners were telling me, I'm sure that they were telling to Fernando and Gerrard. If they have this feeling it must be because someone was telling them something.'
Still, he believes the players he had were capable of challenging for the top four. Hodgson's suggestion, when he took over the job, that they were not annoys Benitez. 'You should defend what you have or will have, not attack the former manager,' he says. Everything was "Blame Rafa". But now, with Dalglish in charge, and without new players, because Carroll hasn't played and Suarez has hardly played, the same group of players are doing much better [than under Hodgson]. Two years ago they were finishing second. In football it is a question sometimes of the mentality, understanding the players, the atmosphere, the confidence.'
Throughout the latter part of his reign he had to maintain an often Kafkaesque dialogue with the owners. He says: 'Sometimes you were talking with [co-owner] George Gillett and it was fine; sometimes you were talking with Tom Hicks and it was fine. Sometimes one was saying the opposite of the other. The problem was when they say to you one thing and then it changes.'
His regrets are limited: some signings perhaps, but principally that he did not take full control of the club's youth academy for the final year. It is a mistake that he would like to rectify when he works again.
He is eager for a project where he can demonstrate that he can build a club combining a thriving academy with the transfer market. Given his record - even his mixed six months at Inter gained him the Italian Super Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup - he will not be waiting long.
My job is to analyse clubs and say, "I know how we can improve this team, we can spend money here or spend money there". Right now I'm preparing projects for different options and different clubs because it could be this one, it could be that one. The main thing will be the transfer targets, as it depends on the potential of the club. But I want to work in England.'
For now, though, there is the diversion of this afternoon's match and a possible debut for a £35m Liverpool signing. Benitez is optimistic for Carroll.
'If he is there, even on the bench, he will be a massive presence because he's a different player,' says Benitez. 'He will have the passion and the fans will all be behind him.'
And the prospect of another famous Liverpool victory? 'Always I say the 11 starters of Liverpool are at the same level as the others,' he says. Over nine months, it's not easy if you have injuries and you can suffer more than the other top sides. But for me Liverpool are a top side in terms of their 11 starters.'
He will not be there, of course. His television will have to suffice for now. It will be a while before Benitez takes charge of a game at Anfield again. But perhaps not that long.
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