Rafael Benitez: El hombre de Milagros

Posted by Garstonite on July 4, 2005, 07:32:01 PM

Roughly translated to “The man of Miracles.”

Are the rumours truthful? Did Rafa Benitez, on his way to Anfield on 16th June 2004 when he finally put pen to paper, actually separate the water of the River Mersey, in order to clear a path so he could get to the other side?!

As farfetched as it still may seem, Liverpool did genuinely triumph in Europe’s supremely acclaimed honour; the Champions League. No longer are yarns of the glory-days seen as merely diminishing memories from elder fans who have conceivably forgotten what a success of such degree feels like. It may very well have taken 21 scrupulously long years for ‘old big ears’ to finally be returned to Liverpool’s ever growing trophy cabinet, but the essential thing is; it has.

All courtesy of the man appointed last year.
   
I must admit, I keep constantly assuming that I’m going to awaken, repeating the words “there’s no place like Anfield,” with all my family members encircling me. Fortunately that is not the case – unless this indeed is an extremely complex and meticulously surreal world, I somehow entered when I slipped out of my bath!
   
I worship Liverpool. I have done ever since my Dad tied me to a chair, stuck matchsticks in my eyes and made me watch 100 hours of Liverpool footage from the 1960s. (Of course I am joking – the ‘Betamax’ video wasn’t released until 1976, by that time I would have been six, and it would have been far too late. Besides, we were poor bastards – I couldn’t even afford to pay attention). But notwithstanding my love and devotion, I certainly couldn’t have anticipated, in my wildest dreams, what this season brought. Prior to this season, if somebody asked me what I would consider a success from Benitez’ first season at the helm, I would have replied “Champions League qualification,” three simple words. If someone would have told me that we’d go on to win that very same competition – the Champions League – I would have advised them to take a cab home. And I'd have paid for it.
   

Let’s look at the facts

Unlike the squad that Benitez inherited from Hector Cuper with Valencia back in 2001, there was little talent in the side which underachieved in the last two seasons under Gérard Houllier. On paper, the potential was evident, but a mixture of players not being able to fit into the right blend or system, carrying too much mediocre baggage, and simply not enough zeal or imagination in the squad in the end cost the Frenchmen his job.
   
Not only were the expectation levels, around the time of Benitez’ arrival, reaching way beyond reality – the demands of the angry and perturbed fans added to the pressure already being place upon the Spaniard’s shoulders. 15 years without a title can seem a very long time. Fans knew very well that Benitez had secured Valencia’s first title in 31 years in his first season there and although the task was even more difficult at Anfield, many had secret hopes. Suddenly, Liverpudlians were becoming the most cynical analysts in the land. According to them everything from diets to dealings in the transfer market needed to be scrutinized. In all honesty; that was not entirely the case.

Houllier’s activities in the transfer market, on average, were far from impressive. Along with the sheer bargains like Sami Hyypia and Gary McAllister, were the smart investments, like Babbel and Hamann. Those four players alone will be doubt seen as major factors in Liverpool’s most triumphant season under the Frenchman’s guidance; the treble season of 2000/2001. However, if we are to compare signings with what we achieved – or more to  the point, didn’t achieve – surely the summer of 2002, shall be seen as one of Liverpool’s most significant – unfortunately in a bad way.

Houllier signed three players he believed would advance Liverpool from being a side narrowly missing out on the Premiership and reaching the Champions League quarter finals (albeit in our first effort in that competition) to going that extra, crucial mile. As we all know too well, it just wasn’t to be; Bruno Cheyrou turned out to be a lightweight who couldn’t handle the rough and tumble of the English game, Salif Diao’s feet acted three seconds before his brain and the ultimate disappointment, El Hadji-Diouf had the ability and potential, but lacked/lacks the attitude to fulfil it and was perplexingly played out of position. 

So far Benitez has spent rather sensibly. Liverpool’s new recruits last season were our better players, most notably Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia – both of whom signed on the same day back on the 20th August 2004. Alonso has been hailed by both of our side's local heros. Steven Gerrard described him as “the best midfielder Spain have got” and Carra said he was “the real deal”. Both are very accurate, albeit brief – Alonso, rather sadly in some respects but rather more magnificently positive in others, is the first proven quality signing we’ve brought on board for a long while. All for a low-low price of €16m. Garcia has had an inconsistent, but still rather successful start. He scored 13 goals from midfield in all competitions, five of which came in the advanced stages of the Champions League which looking back have to be seen as being critical in Liverpool’s amazing feat.

What effect will the unexpected victory have on the club, though? Finances seem far less of an issue than before, that’s for sure. An estimated budget of £30m is being talked of, or possibly simply presumed, in the newspapers. But also, as Zenden and Reina admitted on speaking publicly of their moves to Anfield, the lure of a move to the Champions of Europe can be far too tempting. Again, everything just seems unreal.

What does the near future hold for the club?

Compared to the season just past Benitez’ second year in charge, regardless of what progression is made, is going to be a step down. If Liverpool win the Champions League a second year running, when (unlike this season) we’re now out to be beaten with sides wanting to conquer Europe’s finest, I will faint in disbelief. 1990 was the last time a club (Milan) won a second successive big-eared cup and that was before the Group stages were introduced. Many believe it is a nigh on impossible task in the modern game. The best that I could possibly hope for in the next season’s competition (which starts for us on the 13th July) is the quarter finals.

Even more unlikely would be Benitez jumping us four places and 37 points (unless Chelsea continue to improve) in our 2005/2006 campaign to win the league. That would certainly be seen as a far bigger achievement that anything before in his career including the Miracle in Istanbul.

If he is continue to shock and defy the footballing world with his miracles, new players with fresh ideas are a necessity.

Latest players in the pipeline

Reina
Miguel Ibanez Milito O’Shea
Wright-Philips Arteta Zenden Giannakopoulos
Kapo Raul

No, that is not my Championship Manager team that won four trophies last season. In fact I can’t stand the game. The team above is simply filled with players that we have been strongly linked with in the past two months, all published by the press who have the supposed “inside knowledge”.

Benitez knows that the side that he has at the moment is filled with too many journeymen. Slowly but surely however, they’re packing their bags and leaving Anfield, leaving behind painfully frustrating memories. Perhaps expectation levels were too high on the likes of Diouf, Diao, Cheyrou, Smicer, and Biscan – or perhaps they were simply inadequate and incapable of performing at the highest stage consistently.

This summer, after the season in which Rafa promised to give players ‘one last chance’ , was always going to one in which could be summed up in eight words; out with the old, in with the new.

So will Liverpool splash out major cash on overseas players, in a Chelsea-esque manner? Or will, as it looks to be, Benitez spend a few million here, and a few million there on players ‘for the future’ Arsenal-style? One thing is for sure, the Rafalution is well under way. Rafa is the captain of this ship – we’re the passengers. Wherever he steers us, we need to be patient and willing to cooperate.

Will Steven Gerrard leave the club? Will Liverpool once again become a ‘bastion of invincibility’? Will the current Anfield be no more? Only the future provides these answers. And I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel fortunate that Benitez is the man to guide us into another thrilling chapter in Liverpool Football Club’s history.

© Garstonite 2005

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