Benítez: veni, vidi, vindicated

The victory over Inter provides further evidence that Rafael Benítez is steering Liverpool in the right direction 

The first instinct is to hail Franck De Bleeckere as the most benevolent referee to visit Anfield since Jose Maria Garcia-Aranda, the Spaniard who awarded Roma a penalty in the 2001 Uefa Cup and then, after ardent requests from Liverpool, pretended he'd done no such thing and waved play on. But the fact is the unjustified dismissal of Marco Materazzi in the 30th minute of tonight's game made a Liverpool victory even more unlikely: for from that point on Inter, who hadn't begun particularly ambitiously in the first place, decided a draw would be a fine result and piled sandbags around their box.

Few teams would have managed to pick their way through such a defence, but Liverpool created a couple of chances. The best was in the 44th minute following marvellous interplay between Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel and Steve Gerrard; if Dirk Kuyt had anticipated Gerrard's cut-back, rather than dawdle dumbly behind his marker at the back post, Liverpool would have taken the lead. Unless, of course, Kuyt had scooped the ball over the bar from two yards, which, admittedly, can never be ruled out.

It was staggering that Kuyt started the match and plain bizarre that, after another wretched display, he remained on the pitch when Babel was withdrawn and Yossi Benayoun sat idle on the bench. It was tempting to deduce that the Dutchman's continued presence in the team was designed to prove Rafa Benítez's fallibility, in much the same way that deliberate flaws in Persian rugs are designed to proof that only god is perfect. And then, incredibly, Kuyt scored. And then Jermain Pennant, surprisingly introduced instead of Benyaoun, set up Gerrard for a second. Just as we were preparing to blast Benítez for failing to exploit Liverpool's numerical supremacy, he basked in glorious vindication.

Guess that means there'll be no more hysterical headlines calling for the Spaniard's head tomorrow. Oh yes, like skinny jeans and those mass produced "tribal" tattoos that ovine women insist on getting at the base of their backs, badmouthing Benítez is all the rage these days. But though it's true the Spaniard has committed errors of judgement during his three-and a-half-years at Anfield, it must also be acknowledged that he's made many inspired decisions too. And it's plain wrong to say that overall he's underachieved.

Tonight was just another step in his already-legendary European odysseys. As for the Premier League, only a wizard or a criminal could have connived to get Liverpool closer to Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in that time. Those clubs are far richer, as, indeed, are Inter. It's unreasonable to expect Liverpool to rival them on the pitch if they can't match them in the market.

United and Chelsea have, over the last few seasons, forked out colossal fees and wages that Liverpool can't afford. Arsenal may have been more prudent in terms of players - because they were busy splurging over £400m on a brand spanking new 60,000-seater stadium - but they've still had the luxury of speculating to the tune of £10m on Theo Walcott. Furthermore, Arsène Wenger has been able to augment his purchases with a stream of youngsters schooled at the club - they constitute the fruit of many years' cultivation. Liverpool's youth academy lapsed into decrepitude under Gérard Houllier - the club has brought through no young players through since Steve Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen ten years ago. Benítez has begun to revamp the facility but, even though the youngsters are now top of their reserve league, it will take time for the senior team to reap the rewards.

Liverpool fans' insistence on competing with teams who've far greater resources is perhaps the last relic of the days when they were kings. When David Moores began his chairmanship in 1991 Liverpool were unquestionably the finest club in the land. The reign quickly unravelled amid negligence and nonsensical decisions. That was the context in which Benítez arrived in 2004. His astonishing feat of winning the Champions League in his first season (just two years and nine months ago) perhaps convinced fans that the unfeasible leap into a new era had been completed. In reality, what that victory, the run to the final in 2007 and tonight's win show was that in cup competitions, where the disparity wrought by superior resources is not as stark as in 38-game seasons, Benítez can make a little go a long, long way.

Here's a question for anyone who still thinks Benítez should be ousted: if Benítez were to be sacked tomorrow, who could take Liverpool higher? The American owners' flirtation with Jürgen Klinsmann doesn't suggest they know the answer to that question. One obvious candidate is David Moyes, whose Everton side currently sit above Liverpool in the Premier League. You could argue, if you were looking for a contrived point in his favour, that Moyes's superiority in the transfer market is neatly summed up by the fact that it is he, not Benítez, who has recruited the best Spanish midfielder currently on Merseyside (and it's true that Mikel Arteta was an excellent signing, especially for just £2m). Though that would be to ignore the millions squandered on the likes of Per Kroldrup and James Beattie.

Also, solid as Everton have been this season, it remains to be seen whether Moyes can sustain such form over a longer period or instead lurch into another battle against relegation as per their one-terrific-season-followed-by-one-terrible-season model. And, of course, you might also question whether it's worth Everton qualifying for the Champions League bearing in mind their farcical venture into it in 2005-06.

Andriy Voronin is no genius (but what do you expect from a free signing? He's no worse than Steve Sidwell or Claudio Pizarro at Chelsea) but in general Benítez bought very well in 2007; his one marquee signing, Fernando Torres, has been an outstanding success. Lucas Leiva, Javier Mascherano and Alvaro Arbeloa are effective and Benayoun and Babel have contributed goals and - crucially, given that some detractors liken him to Houllier - unpredictability, the precious quality that Houllier feared in his players. So his most recent signings have suggested he's headed in the right direction, even if many of those that preceded it didn't.

Having said all that, it's true that Liverpool have produced some dreadful performances this season. Perhaps Liverpool do need to bring in a new man. But not to replace Benítez , rather to assist him. The disjointed displays at home to the likes of Marseille, Wigan and Birmingham and away to Besiktas and Boro, along with recent rumblings of discontent from Liverpool's dressing room, indicate that the club is missing Pako Ayesteran more than Benítez would have hoped. Benítez's former No2, who left Anfield last August, was the players' friend, the cuddly man-manager who helped ensure the team and Benìtez, whose personality is more remote, were on the same wavelength. Benítez hasn't replaced Ayesteran - and allegedly vetoed a proposal to install Paul Jewell in that role before Jewell went to Derby County.

Perhaps after a perceived betrayal by his long-time partner he's finding it difficult to trust another man. He needs to get over that and commit to a new relationship. Or maybe tonight's result over the runaway leaders of Serie A will foster new togetherness and cohesion between team and manager - as well as fans and owners.

Copyright - The Guardian

Article links



We've got all the results from official games, appearance stats, goal stats and basically every conceivable statistic from 1892 to the present, every single line-up and substitutions!