A Spanish inquisition

Rafa Benitez has a good record against Barça but tackling them in the Champions League will be Liverpool’s sternest test yet

Any football man with a strong connection to Real Madrid keeps a place in his emotional DNA for Barcelona. If Rafael Benitez, from Madrid and once of Real, seems sparing in the emotion he shows in his work, he might be ready for at least a little nostalgia when he takes his Liverpool team to Catalonia for the next round of the Champions League. Take away the period when Benitez still had his managerial L-plates on, and his record there has been unusually productive.

Barcelona have punctuated Benitez’s career at key points. They were there on the day he hit the big time, a young, up-and- coming coach, 35 and in charge of a top flight team for the first time after a spell with the second team of Madrid. Benitez’s Real Valladolid team kicked off the 1995-96 Spanish campaign by hosting Johan Cruyff’s Barça. For just over an hour they kept them at bay, before losing 2-0. And for just over half a season, Benitez hung on to his job, although defeat at Camp Nou the following January would be his penultimate evening on the Valladolid bench. A week later he was sacked; his career had hit a low point.

For Cruyff then, read Frank Rijkaard now. Benitez is used to seeing a Dutchman parade around the Barcelona technical area. When Benitez guided unfashionable Extremadura to the Spanish top flight in 1998, he would come up against Louis van Gaal, whose team beat his twice on the way to a second successive La Liga title. Extremadura went down. Benitez again bounced back.

Once he had joined Valencia, he found the means to stall the Catalans so regularly barcelonistas called him a jinx. In three visits to Camp Nou, Valencia took seven points off Barça, and led to the kind of discussion that is standard when Barcelona find themselves stymied: Benitez’s Valencia team would be caricatured as cagey and committed only to counter-attack. Sometimes it held a element of truth, though by the time Valencia collected, under Benitez, their second La Liga title in three years, they had developed more accomplishment about their game.

Between them, Rijkaard and Benitez have won four of the last five Spanish championships; they have won three of the last six senior European trophies — Benitez’s Uefa and European Cups of 2004 and 2005, Rijkaard’s 2006 Champions League — so the duel between the coaches has fascination. “Of course, Rafa’s presence is important with this tie,” says Paco Herrera, Benitez’s number two at Liverpool until he took a job in Barcelona, at Espanyol, a few months ago. “He knows Barça perfectly, and he’ll know how to play against them. He’s got the weapons at his disposal to really damage Barcelona. Liverpool have got power in the air, and they work very hard at set-pieces. They defend as a unit, work together and are very aware of their weak points. For me, the key will be the return leg at Anfield. With that public, Liverpool transform.”

To the younger generation of the Barcelona public, watching Liverpool live has meant boredom. The clubs met in successive seasons in the Uefa and then the European Cup, in 2001 and 2002, and both times Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool left Camp Nou with 0-0 draws and some scathing headlines in their wake about a lack of adventure. The perception from Catalonia is that Benitez has designed a very different Liverpool. “It is no coincidence,” reckoned an editorial in the pro-Barça paper, Sport, “that they are the least English of the English clubs, and that since the arrival there of Benitez they have exchanged power for a more elaborate game that comes from the Spanish tradition.” That view might invite some challenge on Merseyside, but around Barcelona, they look first at the Liverpool team-sheet and see a lot they recognise. Yesterday’s local press was full of descriptions of ‘The Spanish Beatles’. Liverpool’s Luis Garcia comes from the city of Barcelona, and grew up thrilled by watching Michael Laudrup playing in cherry-and-blue stripes.

He played in Barça’s colours himself, in between joining Benitez at various stages of the manager’s upward march. Pepe Reina learnt his goalkeeping at Barça and played nearly 50 times for the first-team.

Liverpool’s Boudewijn Zenden formed part of the en masse hiring of Dutch players during Van Gaal’s period in charge. “Reina and Luis Garcia will be extra motivated,” believes Herrera.

So there’s plenty of what the Spanish call ‘morbo’ to this tie, plenty of edge. Those with a keen ear for a grudge will also listen out for the reception given to Eidur Gudjohnsen, the Barcelona striker, when he returns to Anfield in March. Gudjohnsen, then of Chelsea, found a place in Liverpool’s modern demonology when his reaction to a challenge by Xavi Alonso earned the Spanish midfielder a yellow card and asuspension in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in 2005. It was not only the crowd who were incensed. There was, Steven Gerrard would later recall, “bitter resentment towards Gudjohnsen”. The Liverpool captain told his colleague: “We’ll sort out … that cheat Gudjohnsen for you.” The Icelander may, by February, find his status in the first-team under threat from the club’s principal centre-forward Samuel Eto’o, out with a knee injury since September but positive his return is now a matter of weeks away. “I can’t say for certain when,” said the Cameroonian, “but I’ll be there for Liverpool. It’s a difficult draw, but I’m pleased with it.” Barcelona, who today contest the final of the World Club Cup in Japan, also trust teenager Lionel Messi will be fit early in the new year, that they will still lead La Liga in their defence of the domestic title, and that Ronaldinho’s recent brilliance can be maintained.

“If we go through, it will be for having played against a Barcelona who will be at their best,” said Reina. “They are the favourites and nobody wanted to draw them. But we’ve got a chance, and what we have to focus on is getting a result there which will give us a platform for the home leg. Playing that match second is an advantage, but we’ll go to Barcelona intending to win there.”

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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