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Reds' best signing: the totally thorough Rafa

Benitez to benefit from the American treasure chest - but Spaniard's acumen in field of preparation remains Liverpool's ultimate weapon
It was all very different the first time Liverpool encountered Dutch opposition in Europe. On that occasion, in December 1966, Bill Shankly's English champions were taken to the cleaners by the previously unheralded Ajax - thumped 5-1 on a foggy night in Amsterdam that became recognised as the defining moment in the birth of Total Football, as conceived by Rinus Michels and practised by Johan Cruyff and Co.

Last Tuesday evening in Eindhoven, fully illuminated by the bright lights in the Philips Stadium, the football played by the latter day Liverpool was of such total effectiveness that the opposition were reduced to the kind of disorganised rabble traditionally passed off as challengers to the Harlem Globetrotters.

To George Gillett Jnr, who was attending his second live match as co-owner and co-chairman of the Merseyside club, it would have been a familiar sight to behold. The sporting side of his business CV includes a spell as owner and chief executive of the all-conquering, showboating Globetrotters.

Gillett is a sharp operator in the sports business field; he is also a former part-owner of the Miami Dolphins and has had the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team in his portfolio since 2000. Above all else, his introduction to Champions' League football will have reassured him that he and his fellow co-owner and co-chairman, Tom Hicks, have the right man in charge at the performance end of their newly acquired operation.

Indeed, such was the scale of the control and cohesion Liverpool exerted in their 3-0 win against PSV, the watching Gillett could have been excused for revising the £40m figure that he and Hicks reportedly promised Rafael Benitez for team-building last Sunday. On Tuesday's evidence, there is not a great deal of work that needs to be done to the side Benitez has shaped in his three seasons as Rafa the Gaffer. Then again, the estimate might be different when Liverpool get to measure themselves against Valencia or Chelsea at the semi-final stage - assuming, of course, there is no botched job in the return leg against PSV on Wednesday.

Benitez has not exactly been working on a shoestring budget since he succeeded Gérard Houllier in June 2004; in successive seasons he has spent £25.85m, £28.9m and £29.7m. Still, thus far he has been obliged to spread his money on middle-of-the-range investments or relative cut-price gems. His most expensive buys have been Xabi Alonso, at £10.7m, and Dirk Kuyt, at £9m. Liverpool's record outlay remains the £14.5m that Houllier lavished on Djibril Cissé.

That is likely to change this summer, although Hicks is unlikely to be quite as relaxed with the purse strings as he was when he made his ill-fated attempt to get his Texas Rangers up among the biggest hitters in baseball. That came in 2000, two years after he bought the team from a consortium headed by one George W Bush. In what remains by far the biggest individual deal in baseball history, Hicks signed Alex Rodriguez from the Seattle Mariners on a staggering $252m (£128m) 10-year contract.

It was a widely criticised and ultimately doomed move. Rodriguez smashed individual scoring records but failed to galvanise a struggling team. In 2004, he was traded to the New York Yankees, with the Rangers having to pay $67m of the $179m left on the contract of the man known in the States as "A-Rod".

It was little wonder, then, that Hicks should baulk when the suggestion was put to him in a BBC radio interview that he and Gillett might splash out money "Abramovich-style" at Anfield. "I've been in the business long enough to know that that doesn't work," Hicks said. "The key for us is to have a smart manager like Rafa, who will take a long-term view. With the higher revenue we'll generate from our new stadium, we'll be able to compete with anyone."

Neither the co-owners nor the team manager will divulge precisely how much money will be made available to compete with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal this summer while work gets under way on the club's new £215m, 61,000-seater stadium in Stanley Park. The hope for Benitez is that he does not suffer the kind of frustration he did last summer when Seville kept pushing up the asking price for Daniel Alves until the Brazilian right-back was out of his range at £12m.

The trouble is Alves now has a new contract with a buy-out clause set at £40m. The values placed on two other long-term Benitez targets, David Villa and Samuel Eto'o, have rocketed too. Then there is the question of competition from Chelsea's chequebook. If Benitez is to land a luxury item in the transfer market, Mourinho-style, he will have to pay very heavily for it.

All of which might not leave the man from Madrid all that far removed from where he was when he arrived at Anfield and won the Champions' League in his first season with a team that featured just two new signings, Alonso and Luis Garcia.

In the meantime, as Liverpool focus their sights on a sixth European Cup, it is glaringly obvious that their best signing for quite some time has been their manager. With Valencia and Liverpool, Benitez now boasts a 58 per cent success rate in European matches. That compares with 50 per cent ratios for both Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho.

Benitez's "secret", according to Mista, chief striker in the Valencia side who won the Uefa Cup under him in 2004, is the kind of obsessive meticulousness that drove him to spend part of his honeymoon studying training methods at Milan, that had him using laptop analysis of the Real Madrid youth team all of 20 years ago, and that moved him to ban paella - the treasured local dish - from the menu at Valencia because it did not meet his strict dietary requirements for his players. "Benitez prepares for matches like no one else," Mista maintained. " Sometimes it would shock you just how often the opposition did precisely what he said they would do."

If PSV are to cause a shock at Anfield on Wednesday night, they will have to outwit the man who is busy perfecting his art of Totally Thorough Football.

Andrew Tong

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