You can hang your hat on Rafa try­ing to beat Liver­pool

Daily Mail - - Football - MARTIN SA­MUEL CHIEF SPORTS WRITER

We live in a world of con­spir­acy the­o­rists. even the Pres­i­dent of the United States is one. Don­ald Trump be­lieves cli­mate change is a Com­mu­nist plot; that vac­cines cause autism; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; and that the death toll of Hur­ri­cane Maria in Puerto Rico was in­flated to dis­credit him. He’s an id­iot, ob­vi­ously.

And, as foot­ball mir­rors so­ci­ety, con­spir­acy the­o­ries abound there, too. New­cas­tle man­ager Rafa Ben­itez will go soft tomorrow to steer the ti­tle to­wards Liver­pool. ev­ery­one knows this, ap­par­ently.

Manch­ester City fans fear it, Liver­pool sup­port­ers de­light in it. But how ex­actly would Ben­itez achieve such a fix? What in­struc­tions would he give? What se­lec­tions would he make?

First, we have to buy into the idea that Ben­itez is a patsy. Not the con­queror of Spain’s gi­ants, with Va­len­cia. Not a Cham­pi­ons League win­ner, a europa League win­ner, the out­stand­ing man­ager of some of the great­est names in the euro­pean game.

We have to reimag­ine Ben­itez as a weak man, so des­per­ate to curry favour at a club he has not coached since 2010 that the live opin­ions of 50,000 New­cas­tle sup­port­ers at St James’ Park, mean noth­ing to him.

We must com­mit to the view that he thinks noth­ing of the in­tegrity of com­pe­ti­tion, and that he is pre­pared to ir­repara­bly harm his pro­fes­sional rep­u­ta­tion and suf­fer pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion by mak­ing counter-pro­duc­tive de­ci­sions to ben­e­fit a ri­val.

And even if we fever­ishly con­jure he would do all that on the off- chance Manch­ester City do not win their fi­nal two games, the ques­tion re­mains, how?

He would have to set up a team badly, on pur­pose. He would have to give play­ers pre- match mes­sages that would, in part,

re­veal this ne­far­i­ous plan. And he would have to make changes and tac­ti­cal de­ci­sions that were ev­i­dently de­struc­tive.

Come the fi­nal whis­tle he would have no cred­i­bil­ity at all. And for what? Noth­ing.

There is no in­trin­sic ben­e­fit for Ben­itez in Liver­pool win­ning the league. He may talk like a fan, but so did Luis Suarez, right up un­til that mo­ment he saw the chink of light be­tween two Liver­pool de­fend­ers in front of goal on Wed­nes­day.

There are no old pals’ acts on the foot­ball field, which is what makes it so de­li­ciously un­cer­tain, and any Liver­pool sup­port­ers who be­lieve Ben­itez would be party to col­lu­sion can’t think much of him as a man­ager.

Given his revered sta­tus, this makes no sense. The good news is, as Ben­itez has al­ready made plain, no­body at his for­mer club should get their hopes up.

He will do the right thing, as Bren­dan Rodgers will on Mon­day, as Sean Dy­che did last week­end, as Jan Siew­ert of Hud­der­s­field tried to with­out the re­motest hope of suc­ceed­ing. Ben­itez has played five games against Liver­pool as a man­ager in eng­land and only lost two.

Out­gunned as he often is by mem­bers of the Premier League elite, he has a cussed, neg­a­tive, frus­trat­ing way of set­ting up that looks to take a draw, or a win on the counter-at­tack. ex­pect to see noth­ing less tomorrow night.

THe irony is, while the air­waves are full of con­spir­acy the­o­ries, all ev­i­dence sug­gests the Premier League is plumb-line straight. Burn­ley could have chucked it against Manch­ester City on Sun­day; ei­ther played with­out in­ter­est, or aban­doned their phi­los­o­phy and had a reck­less go. ei­ther would have been dis­hon­est.

So, Dy­che sent his play­ers out to do the de­cent thing. Play like Burn­ley. And they did. And it drove City close to dis­trac­tion, be­fore their nar­row win. It was ex­actly what the com­pe­ti­tion de­manded.

Neil Warnock has al­ways re­sented the weak­ened Liver­pool team Ben­itez put out against Ful­ham in 2007, the year

Sh­effield United went down. Ful­ham’s vic­tory was among the re­sults that con­demned Warnock to the drop — yet Ben­itez was com­ing off the back of a Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal win over Chelsea in­volv­ing ex­tra time and penal­ties, and was pre­par­ing for the fi­nal against AC Mi­lan in 18 days’ time.

Pri­ori­tis­ing ma­jor fix­tures — and for Liver­pool there could be none big­ger — is not the same as de­lib­er­ately tanking.

All man­agers do it, even Warnock, who that year rested sev­eral Sh­effield United play­ers for a mid­week match with Manch­ester United to keep them fresh for a visit to Charl­ton, which ended in a draw.

So, if Wat­ford play their fi­nal game against West Ham with one eye on the FA Cup fi­nal the fol­low­ing Satur­day, that is un­der­stand­able.

What we could con­fi­dently ex­pect, how­ever, is that if Wat­ford had one of the ti­tlechas­ing pair on the fi­nal day, they would not be a walkover.

it is very im­pres­sive the way for­eign coaches, for­eign play­ers, even for­eign own­ers, in­vest very quickly in en­sur­ing the com­pe­ti­tion re­mains above re­proach.

We hear so much about the in­ten­sity of feel­ing be­tween Liver­pool and Manch­ester United, but what of the end to the 1994- 95 sea­son, when An­field leg­end Kenny dal­glish and his Blackburn team vis­ited Liver­pool on the fi­nal day, need­ing three points to win the league and deny United? That was go­ing to be an­other carveup be­tween old friends.

Fi­nal score: Liver­pool 2 Blackburn 1. Had United not drawn at West Ham, Liver­pool would have handed the prize to their great­est en­emy at the ex­pense of their favourite son.

Even rel­e­gated clubs strive for dig­nity when called upon. The West Ham team of 1991-92 fin­ished bot­tom of the league and lost 22 times in a 42-game sea­son. Al­ready con­signed to the sec­ond tier, how­ever, they beat Manch­ester United 1-0 to leave Leeds in pole po­si­tion with two games to go.

Howard Wilkin­son’s team won the ti­tle four days later. ‘An ob­scene per­for­mance,’ Sir Alex Fer­gu­son called it, char­i­ta­bly de­scrib­ing Kenny Brown’s win­ner as the ‘luck­i­est goal imag­in­able’.

Years later, in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Man­ag­ing My Life, he went even fur­ther, the re­sult ap­par­ently leav­ing him with a life­long, ir­ra­tional aver­sion to male head­wear.

‘in the last minute of the match, a well-dressed man in a trilby called to me “Alex, Alex”,’ Fer­gu­son wrote. ‘i turned to look at him and he shouted, “f*** you!” and put two fin­gers up. it tells you some­thing about men with hats.’

DEAR, dear, Alex, don’t shoot the milliner. Still, it re­veals some­thing of the beat­ing heart of a league when even the damned and the doomed can­not be re­lied upon to ca­pit­u­late oblig­ingly. This re­turns us to Ben­itez and New­cas­tle.

The home side have lit­tle to play for against Liver­pool: they were safe long ago, can’t make Europe, can’t even fin­ish top

half. The best New­cas­tle can achieve is a jump from 13th to 11th — and not even that if West Ham win an­other game.

Yet rank­ings and the odd £4m dif­fer­en­tial ac­cord­ing to places is not the point. This is New­cas­tle’s last home game of the sea­son. Liver­pool are a huge club go­ing for a ti­tle.

What would it say of Ben­itez, his play­ers, if they wave them through? it says they are small and in­con­se­quen­tial. Win, and New­cas­tle are re­mem­bered — the way Crys­tal Palace’s come­back in 2014 is re­mem­bered, the way West Ham’s de­nial of United is re­mem­bered.

Win, or even draw, and they are part of the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of ar­guably the great­est Premier League sea­son.

Equally, New­cas­tle may yet lose to the bet­ter side. No shame there, ei­ther. But sur­ren­der and they will be re­called in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent way.

Ben­itez has been part of English foot­ball long enough to know this, and to know what is ex­pected. in­deed, he wouldn’t want it any other way. Why do you think he’s here?

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