Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

James Lawton: Forget Liverpool owners, Benitez has himself to blame

Rafael Benitez




Rafa Benitez had to step down. It is a reality that should not be caught up in all the angst and legitimate anger over the catastrophic American ownership of Liverpool.

This will still hold true if it should happen that one of the great clubs of Europe offer him the chance to rebuild his tarnished reputation.

That's the future — and maybe Benitez's chance to re-make himself as a vibrant football leader rather than the befuddled, and befuddling, figure who by the end of this last season seemed increasingly distant from his No 1 priority of halting the slide in dressing-room morale which left Liverpool so far out of touch with the elite of the game.

The present speaks for itself. Liverpool look all played out on the field. Yes, the finances are nightmarish as is the crisis of ownership.

But none of this impinges ultimately on the responsibility of the coach, which is at all times to maintain the spirit and morale the conviction of his team.

Benitez progressively failed to do this, to the point that even the loyalist Pepe Reina admits that it is hard to be optimistic about next season and the chance that Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano will return from the World Cup action with the vaguest sense of renewed motivation.

Increasingly, Benitez has used the alibi of the dysfunctional ownership and his inability to make significant signings. Yet over six years he has been able to invest a conservatively estimated £250m — when all the undisclosed details of a number of transfer deals and academy acquisitions are added in — in his effort to re-make Liverpool in his own image. The truth, one resisted religiously by his most passionate supporters in the stands, is that his team building has been disastrous.

In a sea of dross, he made three signings of the quality to which Anfield had become accustomed. Of these, Xabi Alonso left at a critical point in Benitez's reign, and Torres and Mascherano had long established their position as two of the world's top players when they pulled on their Liverpool shirts.

This may be a broad brush but then it is a big picture which, after the Champions League was snatched back from Milan in Istanbul and the FA Cup victory over West Ham, has been painted in subdued hues.

But for a surge at the end of 2008-09 that could not be sustained, Benitez has never looked like fulfiling his central challenge of delivering a Premier League title. The case for the defence is that he has not had the means, but if you have a team that contains men like Gerrard, Torres, Mascherano, Alonso and Reina surely you have the basis for progress.

To say any of this is apparently evidence of extreme prejudice, of the prosecuting of a vendetta is an extraordinary claim when you consider the terms on which all leading managers are obliged to operate.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, even Jose Mourinho, have at times all run the gauntlet of doubt, but when question marks have been raised against Benitez, his early obsession with rotation, his quirkish substitutions and his disastrous signings he is defended with quasi-religious fervour.

Let's be very sure about one thing. Few top managers have ever met with such indulgence in the face of overwhelming evidence that their team is running down. His railing against the restrictions placed on him in the transfer market are a familiar source of discontent, but rarely have they been expressed so forcibly in the light of evidence that much of what has been available has been palpably wasted.

For many, the breaking point was the £17m acquisition of Alberto Aquilani, a player of talent but one notoriously fragile. That he should come in to replace Alonso, without any immediate possibility of helping the cause, is the single most breath-taking folly of a misbegotten season.

There were suggestions yesterday that Kenny Dalglish (pictured) may be handed caretaking duties while the club pursue a coach who will balance the current chaos against the possibility, sooner or later, of new, financially sound ownership and the huge kudos to be drawn from some effective trouble-shooting in a dressing room that appears to be homing in on rock bottom.

Of the candidates mooted so far, Guus Hiddink would bring the most vital authority. His brief tenure at Chelsea, admittedly blessed with far greater playing resources than he would inherit at Anfield, was marked above all by an ability to impose a new purpose and unity on players who had become fragmented and disenchanted under Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Hiddink's crowning gift might well have come with the winning of his second European Cup but for some bizarre officiating in the semi-final against Barcelona.

Most significantly, though, the Dutchman's most obvious knack — one which the World Cup misadventure with Russia scarcely diminishes given all the other examples of his success — is to get players behind him, to understand their strengths and their fears.

This is the most fundamental quality in any coach. For Liverpool, it was one from which Rafa Benitez seemed almost completely detache

Rafa's Kop flops

One of the major criticisms of Rafa Benitez’s reign at Anfield was his poor record in the transfer market. For every Fernando Torres or Xabi Alonso, there were half a dozen or so Mauricio Pellegrinos. Here, Chris Holt looks at Benitez’s biggest transfer disasters.

ROBBIE KEANE (£20m from Tottenham Hotspur): As a boyhood Red — aren’t they all — Robbie Keane arrived at Anfield as that oft described, final piece of the jigsaw. He may well have been, but the Republic of Ireland striker didn’t really get the chance to show it as he inexplicably spent most of his time on the bench before being shipped back to Spurs after just six months.

ALBERTO AQUILANI (£17m from Roma): Probably a bit harsh, as for all we know, the Italian could be the best midfielder in the world. The problem was, he arrived at Liverpool already injured, remained so for quite a while and then when fit, wasn’t picked. The huge price tag is yet to be justified and the fact he was Xabi Alonso’s supposed replacement, didn’t help his cause either

Andriy Voronin (free from Bayer Leverkusen): The blond, pony-tailed adonis typified Benitez’s hit and miss (mostly miss) form in the transfer market. Voronin hardly arrived at Anfield with an amazing Bundesliga record and looking more like a member of Status Quo, the Ukrainian became a figure of fun as much for his appearance as his ability, or lack of, on the pitch.

JERMAINE PENNANT (£7m from Birmingham): Some saw the move positively as Benitez sought to bring in young British talent — two out of three ain’t bad. But there was no need to sign the winger, as Rafa played mostly without any and 80 games and three goals later he was off. Still, on the bright side for Pennant, he had a fling with Hollyoaks stunner Mercedes McQueen.

Fernando Morientes (£6.3m from Real Madrid): Benitez can’t take the flak for this one, but the Spanish striker was a failure nonetheless. His signing was universally welcomed as Liverpool had been at that stage struggling for goals, but that trend continued as Morientes plundered just 12 goals from 61 appearances during his 18-month misery on Merseyside.

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