Softening the blow


So, I gather than many Chelsea supporters are less than thrilled that Rafa Benitez is their new coach.  From what I can gather, it’s the way his Liverpool team managed to deflect Jose Mourinho’s juggernaut of a side in the 2005 and 2007 Champions League semi-finals that especially rankles.  Mourinho’s evident bitterness probably doesn’t help, and many recall Benitez’ Liverpool playing rather conservatively too.

That last point may be true – but Benitez proved himself a master of maximising returns from his playing staff.  Both Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard enjoyed the form of their careers (and were both genuinely world class players) under Benitez.  And Benitez’ 2005 Champions League win still stands out as the least likely at least since the 1980s.  It’s easy to forget, but have a quick look through the teams that started that night in Istanbul:

AC Milan

GK 1 Brazil Dida
RB 2 Brazil Cafu
CB 31 Netherlands Jaap Stam
CB 13 Italy Alessandro Nesta
LB 3 Italy Paolo Maldini (c)
DM 21 Italy Andrea Pirlo
RM 8 Italy Gennaro Gattuso
LM 20 Netherlands Clarence Seedorf
AM 22 Brazil Kaká
CF 7 Ukraine Andriy Shevchenko
CF 11 Argentina Hernán Crespo

Liverpool FC

GK 1 Poland Jerzy Dudek
RB 3 Republic of Ireland Steve Finnan
CB 23 England Jamie Carragher
CB 4 Finland Sami Hyypiä
LB 21 Mali Djimi Traoré
DM 14 Spain Xabi Alonso
RM 10 Spain Luis García
CM 8 England Steven Gerrard (c)
LM 6 Norway John Arne Riise
SS 7 Australia Harry Kewell
CF 5 Czech Republic Milan Baroš

 

Aside from the ‘keeper (who himself won 90-odd caps for Brazil), the Milan side is a whos-who of the last decade, while only four or five of the Liverpool side were in Benitez’ long-term plans at all.  So, memories of Benitez are possibly coloured by the fact that the man is a pragmatist, and, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, he had much to be pragmatic about.  However, there are two other aspects of his Liverpool side that I admired.  Firstly, devotion to duty – modelled by Benitez himself.  His side would give everything on the pitch.  And secondly – discipline, tactically and emotionally.  Benitez’ players adopted a system almost robotically and played a very clean game.  In all but emotional discipline therefore, I’d characterise Benitez as a similar coach to Mourinho.  And Benitez’ pragmatism tends to express itself in the form of elaborate tactical plans in any given situation, so, for close observers, it’s compelling stuff.

Now, for all this, and just in case anyone has forgotten, Benitez is also more than capable of getting top players to express themselves.  Never have I seen Liverpool so badly humiliated as when they faced Benitez’ great Valencia in 2002:

Good luck, Rafa.

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