WHAT HAS RAFA EVER DONE FOR LIVERPOOL?
DURING a recent phone-in, in the wake of Liverpool’s rather dispiriting 1-1 draw with Reading in the FA Cup third round, the question was asked: what has Rafa ever done for Liverpool?
Well, caller, allow me to answer your question.
If he were to be sacked right now, as a growing proportion of Liverpool fans believe he should be, what would his legacy be? How would the obituaries read? Would posterity judge him kindly?
Firstly, it is only fair to acknowledge that our caller, sword of truth in hand, did admit that he knew “he had won the Champions League”, so we can take silverware out of the equation. One Champions League, one FA Cup, one Community Shield and one European Super Cup can be put to one side.
So should the runners-up medals, for last season’s Premier League, the Carling Cup in 2005, the World Club Cup that same year and the 2007 Champions League. Second is just first last, after all.
To balance out our analysis, we should also avoid falling into the trap of judging Benitez purely on the travails of the current campaign (although, for the purposes of our hypothetical argument, we can assume that Benitez is dismissed with Liverpool in seventh place, four points behind Tottenham and 12 behind league leaders Chelsea).
No manager should be judged on one season, but on the entirety of their reign.
What has Benitez achieved in his Anfield lustrum, then?
Well, his primary achievement would surely be re-establishing Liverpool as a credible European force.
After the disastrous reign of Graeme Souness, the underachievement under Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier’s slow, occasionally painful rebuilding, Benitez took over a club in the shadows of its past as far as the continent was concerned.
Two finals, one semi-final, one quarter-final, one appearance in the last 16 later, despite one surprise group stage elimination, Liverpool can once again be counted among the Champions League’s elite.
Domestically, too, Benitez has restored Liverpool’s faded grandeur.
Not completely, of course, but certainly partially. At the start of his reign, in the aftermath of Houllier, qualification for the Champions League was the absolute maximum Liverpool could hope to achieve. Now it is the bare minimum.
And the perception that Liverpool have always battled for fourth under the Spaniard is wrong. Only in 2004/05 and the current season have Liverpool been involved in scraps for fourth place. In 2007/08, they finished fourth, but 11 points ahead of Everton. They were as many points off the top. They were only in a scrap for fourth if they were also in a scrap for the title.
In 2006 and 2007, they finished third, once comfortably, once narrowly, and last season, as everyone seems to have forgotten, they came a close second.
Liverpool are often seen as the poor relations of the Big Four.
In one – economic – sense, they are, but in terms of performance under Benitez that title probably goes to Arsenal.
That Liverpool fans are so, rightly, disappointed with the anticlimax of the current season is evidence of how far Benitez has brought the club.
That he has done so while overhauling his squad makes that work all the more impressive.
Chelsea and Manchester United already had the core of their squads for the second half of the 2000s in place when Benitez landed at Anfield, whereas he has had to compete while restructuring completely.
The side he took over – had he not sold anyone, other than the wantaway Michael Owen – boasted Jerzy Dudek in goal, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and JohnArne Riise in defence, a midfield of El-Hadji Diouf, Steven Gerrard, Dietmar Hamann and Harry Kewell and a strike force of Djibril Cisse and Milan Baros. The squad, packed with youngsters, included the likes of Djimi Traore, Emile Heskey, Salif Diao, Danny Murphy, Vladimir Smicer and Chris Kirkland.
Contrast that with what Liverpool have after five years of Benitez.
The best goalkeeper in England, Pepe Reina, and arguably the best right back, the Argentine national captain in midfield, and the world’s best striker. Gerrard and Carragher, of course, remain, while the likes of Daniel Agger, Yossi Benayoun and – who knows? – Alberto Aquilani are all upgrades on what went before.
It is impossible to put a value on such things, but it is safe to say Liverpool’s playing staff are worth more than they were six years ago.
That is not to say that Benitez is without fault, of course.
He has made a number of misguided signings, most notably, and expensively, Andrea Dossena, Robbie Keane and Ryan Babel.
He has a lack of both quality and quantity in his squad after countless signings, although, where Liverpool are concerned, that is highly likely to be as much the owners’ fault as it is the manager’s. Liverpool have seen more average full-backs in the last few years than most teams have in their histories.
He still exhibits a reluctance to allow his team to express themselves. A lot of the football Liverpool play is not exactly aesthetically pleasing. Most crucially, he has seemingly failed to take that giant leap from near miss to direct hit in terms of the title.
But none of that makes him a failure. Not an unqualified success, maybe, but far from a failure.
It seems fair to say that the future will be kinder to Benitez than the present. – The Telegraph.
SPANISH FLY: The 1-1 draw against Reading in the FA Cup recently has again raised questions about whether Rafa Benitez is the right man to lead Liverpool.