Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FOOTBALL -

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.

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