Benítez vs Mourinho: in-depth Champions League preview

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 1, 2005, 04:00:54 PM

Tuesday's game, as well as one of the biggest, has to be one of the most fascinating and intriguing in English football history. Both managers are overseas coaches, new to this country, having arrived on the back of domestic and European success in 2004.

   There is so much that surrounds the fixture.

   It is tradition, versus the nouveaux riches. It is a working class northern city against the wealthy heart of the southern capital. It is the quiet, unassuming genius against the arrogant, cocky, über-talented media-whore.

   (Notice how Mourinho yet again left his players to hog the limelight –– but once more doing so in such a way that it ends up generating more press for the manager than had he stayed and celebrated with his players; by removing himself from the limelight, he is drawing everyone's attention away from the players, and towards his absence. This is clearly a very clever man, but one whose vanity makes Narcissus look like a man with low self-esteem.)

   Then there is how delicately balanced the tie is, with Liverpool at home and backed by the raucous Anfield roar, but without an away goal to act as a buffer. Chelsea arrive as newly-crowned Champions (deserving, given their performances), while Liverpool are adrift in the race for 4th spot, with the farcical Uefa ruling hanging over the club, whereby it could be deemed that the Champions of Europe, if it miraculously transpired, are less "champion" than a team who concentrated solely on its league campaign, and who were only marginally less average than their neighbours (who were otherwise occupied and hamstrung by injuries). It is a highly unusual context for a game, and it appears that should the eventuality arise, the FA would rather ignore the precedent set by Spain in 2000.

   Let them. Personally speaking, I'd rather Liverpool won the Champions League and didn't get the chance to defend it, than the possible alternative of failing to win it this time around and yet entering next season by finishing 4th. We cannot hope to have a better chance of winning it for a good two or three years.

   I didn't expect us to get this close to winning either of the 'big two' trophies for another two seasons –– Benítez' third year –– but can you imagine the boost it would give these players, in terms of next season's Premiership performances, to be Champions of Europe? (Or even just to make the final?)

   With just the league to concentrate on –– don't forget, Rafa won the Uefa Cup with a heavily rotated side last year, while resting his stars for La Liga –– I'd expect Liverpool to make a serious (if ultimately unsuccessful) tilt at the title in just twelve months' time. This season's top three will be occupied by the 'big one', while Everton will do well to finish mid-table with all the extra games. Benítez also took charge of a team that, back in 2001, had made the Champions League final, and instantly turned them into the best team in Spain (for the first time in 31 years).

   What Liverpool would lose in money next season, it would more than compensate for with this year's earnings, and added commercial bonuses from being 'the best'. Not to mention the prestige, which, after all, is what it's all about. You try to make money to build the best team in Europe; if Rafa can do that, first time out, without spending money, then where's the problem? I can only foresee delirium. Liverpool FC was founded on winning the biggest trophies, not finishing 4th. I'd happily wait another three years for a major trophy, if 2005 is our year.

   As a game, Tuesday's clash is impossible to call. All you can guarantee is that Anfield will be not so much electric, as nuclear. Should fusion occur on the Kop, the heat and light of a thousand suns will vaporise the Chelsea players. (Although I imagine their manager would merely apply more tanning lotion.)


The two Iberians

While both Mourinho and Benítez share many similarities, comparisons remain difficult. Both are clearly great managers, but their tasks in the last twelve months have been radically different.

   One manager took charge of a team falling short of previous standards, and which had been well off the pace in the title race. This manager –– Rafael Benítez –- spent a little over £24m on his seven new recruits. The league form was pretty much the same, but there were extenuating factors –– although he himself will not accept all of the excuses, and has rightly laid down the gauntlet to his players.

   The other manager inherited an expensive team which had finished 2nd in the Premiership, with 79 points –– a title-winning tally for Manchester United in 1999, and more than Arsenal's in lifting the Premiership trophy in 1998. Chelsea had also reached this precise stage of the Champions League –– and all this with a manager, Claudio Ranieri, who had never taken a team to anything but domestic cups (Italy, Spain) or above 4th in a league table.

   Ranieri took the scatter-gun approach to signings: pay over £10m often enough, and eventually you'll end up with a collection of great players. He purchased Lampard, Duff, Makelele, and even landed Cech and Robben before he departed. He also purchased Veron, Crespo and Mutu –– expensive flops with no heart or desire. Easy come, easy go, when you're dealing with unlimited funds.   

   Even Gérard Houllier, who many still regard as a little 'lacking' at the very top level, won the French league with Paris St Germain in 1986 and, without the aid of a Russian billionaire's limitless funds, completed a remarkable treble with Liverpool –– a year before taking the side to second in the Premiership. He even managed to amass 80 points in 2002, one point more than Ranieri last season.

   Ranieri, in a twist of fate, then succeeded Benítez at Valencia –– inheriting a truly wonderful side –– and promptly proved an unmitigated disaster in his second spell at the Mestalla. He was fired earlier in this year with the team out of all the cups and languishing in mid-table in the Primera Liga.

   Even with a clearly second-rate manager in charge, Chelsea got to within touching distance of success. Why is that? Those who say the money is irrelevant, look at Chelsea under Ranieri pre-Abramovich, and post-Abramovich. Money buys success –– full-stop.

   Mourinho then came along and applied the finishing touches, engendering a fantastic team spirit and some very clever psychology –– getting them from 'very nearly men' to winners. Like his predecessor, he spent heavily, but all of his best players this season –– Terry, Lampard, Makelele, Cech, Duff, Cole and Robben –– were already at the club, or already on their way. He inherited a more 'complete' set-up than Benítez, and unlike his Spanish counterpart, had carte blanche to change things how he desired.

   Of Mourinho's singings, only £20m Ricardo Carvalho has looked anything like good value for money –– and for just £2m more, Benítez procured the three amigos: Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia and Fernando Morientes. It didn't matter, though, as Mourinho's signings, while arguably 'flops' to a degree, gave them enough numbers to cope, and some variety. And as awful as Drogba has at times looked –– as an individual –– he provides the tactical fulcrum: the outlet for those crude but effective long balls.

   Drogba has been key to their success, as he is an awkward customer –– tall, fast, and clumsy (in a way that makes him hard to mark). He is an example of how Emile Heskey, if he'd been backed by better midfielders in 2002 (Zidane on the left, Figo on the right), and a more adventurous approach, may have played his part in winning the title for Liverpool. Drogba has scored an amount similar to an 'average' Heskey season, but without a Lampard in midfield, and without goal-scoring wingers, Liverpool then needed lots of goals from both its strikers.

   There's no such thing as a player "not good enough to play in a title-winning side". It depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the other ten players. The key is either to get the best out of each individual, or remove them to improve the balance of the side. Many experts think Chelsea need a Shevchenko or Eto'o. It could conceivably improve them, but it would mean they couldn't lump the ball into the 'mixer' –– precisely how they beat Bayern Munich. Chelsea are so good once they win the 'second balls'.

   Between the two of them, Ranieri and Mourinho spent £211m in 18 months. (Gérard Houllier's net expenditure in six years at Liverpool, including Cissé, who arrived after he had left, was approximately one-third that amount.) Mourinho spent almost as much as Benítez' entire outlay on one player: Drogba.

   Look at these facts:

   –– Mourinho didn't have to face losing a single player whom he'd rather had stayed; Benítez had no choice but to sell Michael Owen, his one and only proven Premiership goalscorer, once Real Madrid made their move.

   –– Mourinho didn't have any of his players unsettled by transfer talk; Benítez had Steven Gerrard's head turned and churned, time and time again.

   –– Mourinho had to deal with a number of injuries, but mostly to full-backs (where the brilliant Gallas could step in) and squad players; Benítez lost many of his key men, with the major disruption to the spine of the side.

   –– Mourinho had a super-strong squad; Benítez was working with players many felt were rejects, if not total joke figures. If Joe Cole has improved dramatically under Mourinho, then Igor Biscan is living proof that in fact you can, to counter Keith Richards's quote, "polish a turd". (Not that Igor was literally 'shit', of course, but many could be forgiven for thinking as much during the previous four years.)

   The only way to compare the two managers would have been to see how well Mourinho would have done had he taken charge of Chelsea in 2003, when the club scraped into the Champions League (at Liverpool's expense). Had Mourinho taken over at that point in time, and Abramovich instead purchased an Italian team (for example), then at least some kind of comparison could be made. Oh, but it would have needed Frank Lampard to be sold to Real Madrid, and John Terry's focus to be constantly undermined by the deafening barrage of rumours, speculation, and attacks on his loyalty.


The Game

In the previous four games against Chelsea, Liverpool have played in a variety of ways (brilliant, good, poor) and in a variety of styles (attacking, aggressive, possession-based, negative, counter-attacking). Chelsea, meanwhile, have a more simple game, but one which is very effective.

   Jozef Venglos, who won the European Championship in 1976 with Czechoslovakia, was at the BayArena in March as a Uefa technical observer. He talked effusively of Liverpool's counter-attacking and praised the "nice combinations". Asked to analyse Chelsea's style, he noted, without sarcasm: "Well, their players are running." 

   It was interesting to see Mourinho choose to put out his strongest team at Bolton, a place where he knew his players, to quote the phrase, could have been 'kicked into next Tuesday'. (Images of Frank Lampard landing on the Anfield turf having, three days earlier, been up-ended by Kevin Davies along the M62 spring happily to mind.) Mourinho was clever instead of resting his stars, he wanted his players to arrive on Tuesday as Champions. That relieves a lot of pressure. Psychologically, their players, although bruised and battered by Bolton, will not feel it, as the endorphins soothe their bodies. Winning is a great way to relieve fatigue.

   (Had they lost, then that would have been a different matter. However, to continue the bizarre sequence of ifs and buts, had Bolton won, that would have put more pressure on Liverpool with regards to re-qualifying, especially with Bolton still to face Everton. As it was, the Reds ended up a point better off than their rivals, despite "dropping" two. It now means that that the point could turn out to be worth two –– as Everton's goal difference is so inferior. It puts Liverpool within just one win of overhauling 'that lot', although with only two games remaining to their three, the lot from Goodison Park remain favourites. That it's three points also means that if Everton draw all three games –– not beyond the realms of possibility, given they face three 'tough' games –– Liverpool would need to beat a distracted Arsenal and a poor Aston Villa to finish above them. It's not over yet . . .)

   The flip-side to Chelsea's success is that one or two Chelsea players may take their eye off the ball. Success is new to nearly all of that side. Mourinho will guard against his team –– to use the Ronnie Moran phrase –– playing the game as if 'still on their lap of honour'. But it only needs the smallest amount of complacency to creep in to the performance of a couple of his players, and it could make all the difference. While success may buoy them yet further, you could argue that one or two may rest on their laurels.

   Liverpool are not at the level of Chelsea with regards consistency, but in the big games Liverpool have grown increasingly impressive as the season has progressed. Liverpool's best team –– which Rafa has still been unable to field –– isn't a million miles behind Chelsea's, but it doesn't have quite the right balance.

   Thankfully, Chelsea have fitness issues regarding a number of players, whereas Liverpool are welcoming back most of the squad –– that the club got this far without them was a remarkable achievement. The shame is that while someone like Cissé is 'fit', he is nowhere near 'match fit'. There hasn't been time to give all these players (Cissé, Kewell, Hamann, Alonso) reserve games –– they've just gone straight into the squad, almost from the moment they could run without pain.

   So while it's great to have Cissé back, it's only 60% of the player he will be come next August. Same with Harry Kewell, who has been working hard in Cadiz in Spain to get fit, and who has lost a lot of weight, and finally looks like the Kewell of old (in terms of appearance, alice-band excepted). However, he himself says he's only 80% fit –– but that, for once, it's 80% fit without the pain. Benítez, who rates him so highly he played him at Cardiff and on other key occasions, even when he was only 60% fit, would love a 100% fit Kewell, and next season now promises that. However, he will be glad that Kewell's return at least gives him another option, even if not as a starter.

   Benítez has the luxury that, for a variety of reasons, the majority of his first choice outfield players for Tuesday either didn't play at all at the weekend, or were on the pitch for only half a game or less. While players can make too much of fatigue, it stands to reason that if you have two sets of equally-fit athletes, those who have had a less gruelling week will be in a fresher condition. Players are not cars filled with unlimited gallons of petrol. They are human beings, and even 10% below their normal selves is enough to make a huge difference in the tightest of matches.

   On Tuesday, Liverpool will welcome back six players into the starting XI: Hyypia, Traore, Biscan, Hamann, Luis Garcia and Baros. (While Riise was "rested" in the second half with an easy, if unusual, spell at centre-half.) Unless Chelsea can recall Duff and Robben, they will have much less scope for change. That Joe Cole was the only player rested yesterday perhaps hints at serious concerns over the other two. As good as Cole has been recently, rather him fit than either of the other two.

   Anyway, it's not about fitness, it's about freshness. People talk about the modern players being athletes, and therefore failing to understand how players can't repeat games so quickly. I'd ask anyone to try and play a second game of football –– at Premiership pace –– two hours after a first, and tell me if they feel as fresh. While players get a couple of days, and not a couple of hours, it stands to reason that the more recovery time (up to a week), the better shape the player will be in. Footballers cover up to ten miles in a game. Running ten miles at jogging pace is one thing; doing so with a mix of lung-bursting sprints over 10-to-100 yards, sharp twists and turns, and energetic jumps, while being kicked from all angles (bruising muscles in the process), is something entirely different.

   Chelsea had a tough game against Liverpool on Wednesday, and a gruelling one yesterday. In both they were made to work hard. If they win on Tuesday (without the help of the referee, for once this season against the Reds) they will deserve all the plaudits they will get. Last season Chelsea had the advantage of meeting Arsenal in the quarter-final when the Gunners also had to face, domestically, a gruelling FA Cup encounter with Manchester United, as well as a high-pressure, high-intensity league encounter with those same bitter rivals. Arsenal were visibly shattered by the time they faced Chelsea in the second leg.

   The way the Reds worked Chelsea on Wednesday was the most encouraging aspect. I was pleased to see a comment I made in my post-match analysis of the first leg  –– about how we negated Chelsea's threat by keeping the ball –– backed up by Alan Curbishley in today's Observer.

   I noted that: It is the way I was crying out for the Reds to defend under Houllier: by keeping the ball, where possible, rather than lumping it upfield at every opportunity.  Curbishley said: "They set about stifling Chelsea, but not by kicking them or pressuring them. They did it by keeping the ball. Their three midfield players tended to try to string six, seven, eight passes together. Chelsea were not able to get up a head of steam. They never really got going and neither did the crowd."

   Chelsea tend to play more like Houllier's Reds than Benítez'. Mourinho loves to field a 'narrow' team, with midfielders who tuck inside, while Rafa loves width (just look at Antonio Núñez yesterday, getting to the byline, as did Kewell).

   Of course, Mourinho inherited two of the best wingers in world football (Benítez merely inherited an injury-plagued Harry Kewell). However, the Portuguese has used them more as attacking strikers either side of the target man, than 'touchline huggers'.  When Robben was injured, there was no great change in terms of winning games –– just in terms of how they won them. Like Houllier's Liverpool, Chelsea look to long balls into the channels, or balls lumped up to the big man. The difference is that Chelsea have better collection of players than Houllier ever possessed –– with a little more strength in certain areas, notably pace in defence.
   
   For all Mourinho's attempts at psychology (pathetic in this instance), Rafa can let a Chelsea player do all his motivational speaking. (Not that the players need motivating, but any little extra spur can only be beneficial.) What Chelsea have gained from Gudjohnsen getting Alonso booked, with his scandalous dive, they will lose ten-fold from the galvanising effect it will have on the men in red. That the Icelandic international apparently gloated about the fact will only make it worse for both himself, and his colleagues. An angry Anfield –– cheering on a 'wronged' Liverpool side –– is not a welcoming place.

   A sense of injustice goes a long way in football. For Liverpool, against Chelsea, the list grows ever-longer: the injury to Alonso courtesy of Lampard, followed by the cynical attempt to get the same player removed from the second leg; the outrageous own-goal in Cardiff, and the heavily-deflected Joe Cole winner at Anfield; not to mention four very credible shouts for penalties this season, all turned down. Meanwhile, Dudek played extra-time at the Millennium Stadium with a massive gash in his shin, from another poor –– if not malicious –– tackle, and only then did a Chelsea player put the ball past him.

   All this, without even mentioning Steven Gerrard. Having been hampered by dental surgery on Wednesday he scored his best goal in four years yesterday, to confirm his best-ever goalscoring season. You don't play with your teeth, of course, but a local anaesthetic and antibiotics won't have left him feeling at all well, so it was great to see that out of his system.

   The Kop will be crucial, as will the other three sides of Anfield. Intimidating Chelsea's players with a 'wall of sound' even Phil Spector would have been proud of is important, but intimidating the referee more so. Premiership referees tend to give Liverpool very little at Anfield, for fear of being accused of bowing to the Kop. But European referees are different. Not only are they not used to the unique atmosphere in English grounds, with the fans so close to the pitch, but Anfield is always twice the stadium on European nights. It is rarely intimidating in domestic fixtures, bar the big ones.

   On Tuesday it will be ten times its normal volume. Liverpool fans aren't stupid –– they know the team is still in transition. They know it could be a couple of years before nights like this are back at Anfield, and having missed out on European Cup semi-finals for 20 years, they won't let this one pass quietly by.

   I've heard a lot about Chelsea's defence in the Premiership, and how people can't see them conceding at Anfield. Juventus had conceded two goals in Europe all season –– and just one from open play –– and yet within half an hour they were 2-0 down at Anfield,  shell-shocked and blizted, and heading out. Chelsea, meanwhile, have lost their last three Champions League away games, and conceded plenty of goals in the process.

   They have progressed by putting four past Barcelona and Bayern Munich at Stamford Bridge. They put none past Liverpool, and the only way they'd have had an attempt on target was if a Red headed towards his own goal. (Lightning didn't strike twice, thankfully.) Petr Cech, meanwhile, needs to be given as much chance with shots as Gianluigi Buffon before him –– when Juventus could only draw 0-0 at the Stadio Delle Alpi, but lost at Anfield two two unstoppable strikes.

   In those terms, the European form book suggests Liverpool all the way. The pressure, however, remains on Chelsea.

   I am not one for predicting scores, as doing so is rather random. Apart from those possesed of (or afflicted with) crystal balls, who can tell? But I do sense both teams will score in this game, and I know Liverpool can score more than once –– in fact, I have a 'feeling' the Reds will score three goals, but that's a random feeling, and not a prediction. The worst-case scenario, in terms of nerves, will be a one-goal Liverpool advantage going into the final stages. It will be unbearable, given the away goal rule, and the ordeal of Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, where a late goal changed the situation from 'winning' to 'losing', when normally you need to first go through 'drawing'.

   I can almost certainly guarantee that Liverpool will play extremely well, with a superb tempo and tenacity –– I just hope it turns out to be enough. If it doesn't, at least Liverpool Football Club will finish the game with its pride intact, as the world looks on.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

"Golden Past, Red Future" is available to pre-order at £8.99, £1 cheaper than when it becomes available (late May/early June, dependent on progressing to the Champions League final, seeing as the book will feature a review of the occasion). There are still a few individually numbered copies available from the initial print run, but orders have been brisk of late.

Amongst many other things, the book will include:
   - A review of this season's Premiership, cup and Champions League campaigns, focusing on key games;
   - A look at what went wrong in Gérard Houllier's final seasons, and what led to the exit of Michael Owen, and the near-exit of Steven Gerrard;
   - An analysis of the Rafael Benítez, looking at how he built his success at Valencia,  his methods, and his plans for Liverpool;
   - An in-depth look at the key players in the current squad, as well as the up-and-coming prospects;
   - A look at the projected future of the club, both on and off the field.
Simply go to www.paultomkins.com for details on how to order.
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