Thursday, February 21, 2008

Benitez: Europe Is My Battleground

Rafael Benitez admits that he finds it easier to influence European games than he does Premier League matches.

The Liverpool boss was reflecting after masterminding the Champions League first-leg triumph over Inter Milan on Tuesday, that lifted months of gloom from Anfield.

What is clear is that European football is his chosen battle ground and he has delivered success against the likes of Chelsea, Juventus, Barcelona, AC Milan, Olympiacos and Marseille when Liverpool had been written off.

That the Spaniard produced again on the really big occasion is no longer a surprise to Anfield observers, who have long accepted that Benitez is better in Europe than he is in the Premier League.

How else do you explain how Liverpool can be so poor against Luton, Havant and Waterlooville, Barnsley and Wigan, while capable of beating one of the form teams of Europe?

And with his own back firmly against the wall after continued speculation over his future, Benitez can afford a wry smile as Liverpool dare to contemplate a 12th appearance in a European Cup quarter-final if they can survive in the San Siro on March 11.

Benitez said: "In Europe you can approach a game tactically in a different way.

"In England it is a different style of football and more difficult for the manager to influence what goes on.

"It is not as simple to influence the game with tactics in England the way it is elsewhere in Europe."

Liverpool will take a 2-0 lead to Milan for the last 16 second-leg next month, and Benitez insists: "We have made it very difficult for Inter now, two goals and a clean sheet.

"But they have a lot of good players and we will need to show plenty of respect and approach the game with confidence, but no complacency.

"There, I suppose, is the prospect of history repeating itself with us going for a European final when we are not in the title race (as in 2005).

"But I would prefer not to think that far ahead, I always say 'one game at a time' and never has that phrase been more appropriate.

Liverpool won their 100th home European game, and Benitez said: "We have an important and difficult game still to come, and the San Siro will be full and determined to help their side.

It took late strikes from Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard to turn Liverpool superiority into Champions League points.

But Benitez said: "I always had confidence that we would score. We were attacking a lot and one goal I felt was likely. So to get two like we did was I suppose, a surprise. But we certainly deserved to at least score.

"The victory was important for the club. We needed to play well for our own people, and the attitude of the players was very good. The whole night was really important for everyone at Liverpool.

"Everyone knew we needed to perform well, that was really the point after so much had been said about us.

"I have always had confidence in the team. If we can play like we did against Inter over and over again, it will be good and we will win a lot of games.

"I know what people were saying (about me). But as a professional you must be ready for every game, to prepare for every game the best you can and with the same ideas.

"You must concentrate, analyse everything, but above all be professional and do your job as best you can whatever the circumstances.

"Maybe the 'dressing room' felt the need to prove people wrong. But their attitude was no different really to plenty of other games.

"Some games we have played well and not won. The difference this season is that we have not been scoring enough goals even when we are well on top, and we have conceded goals too easily at times.

"That is why the confidence goes and you cannot win games in those situations."

But he added: "This lead now is a big boost. We have confidence, because Inter are at the moment the best in Europe. They are top in Italy and have now lost just two games all season.

"If you can beat teams like that and play well, it gives us a high level of confidence in the squad.

"Now we have another important league game at the weekend at home to Middlesbrough. What we need to be is more consistent now.

"We must also accept that if we cannot score when we have clear chances we must keep going, keep working and make sure we do not concede a goal instead.

"We were aiming for a clean sheet, and two goals makes it better still.

"We will go to Milan with confidence but they are really good so we will not be over-confident.

"You could see the quality of Inter's players. And just look at their bench, they had (Patrick) Vieira, (Hernan) Crespo, (Luis) Figo plus very good defenders like (Nicolas) Burdisso.

"That is the sort of quality you are up against, that is why they will be very difficult in Milan."

Carragher Rebukes Benítez For Rotation

Jamie Carragher will arrive at his 100th European appearance for Liverpool at San Siro next month but, even with his vast experience, he is no closer to an explanation for his team's regular metamorphoses in the Champions League.

The Anfield vice-captain yesterday proffered Marco Materazzi's sending-off and an arcane spirit for Liverpool's victory over Internazionale, though a gentle rebuke for rotating in the wrong places revealed frustration at Rafael Benítez's methods. "There is just something about us that we are always confident in Europe," said Carragher. "We fielded our main players as well, which makes a difference, and the sending-off did help us."

Tuesday night provided another example of Liverpool's improved concentration, sense of occasion and, ultimately against the 10 men of Inter, penetration, as they rebounded from their FA Cup defeat by Barnsley. Four days earlier Benítez omitted Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and José Reina from his starting line-up and invited further pressure on his job as the club's last chance of a domestic trophy went begging (Fernando Torres had been unfit).

Even before graffiti appeared outside Melwood demanding Benítez select his strongest side, the manager admitted to a team meeting on Sunday that rest was no longer necessary in the pursuit of fourth place and a sixth European Cup.

"We've got four league games before the return and we have to reproduce this level of performance because we want to be in this competition next time as well," added Carragher, whose last performance on Italian soil will encourage Liverpool's hopes of finishing the task in Milan on March 11.

Of the defender's 99 European appearances, a club record, few have surpassed the night in April 2005 when he defied a Juventus attack containing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alessandro Del Piero. Fabio Capello's side needed to beat Jerzy Dudek only once to capitalise on their goal scored at Anfield - and this against a Liverpool starting XI including Djimi Traoré, Antonio Núñez, Igor Biscan and Milan Baros - but Carragher is not about to invite complacency.

"Even when they went to 10 men Inter impressed me, so I expect a very different game over there. The sending-off had an impact on the game but they defended brilliantly, even though we ended up getting those two goals. Before the game we would have been delighted with that result, and I must admit I did believe we were going to get a breakthrough. We created loads of chances, kept plugging away, and we got them in the end.

"It does put pressure on them now. It was very important not to concede a goal at home - that was the big thing in the minds of the lads at the back. I think 1-0 would have been a great result, and the second was just the icing on the cake."

The cake decorator, Gerrard, missed that goalless draw in Turin, Liverpool winning the quarter-final 2-1 on aggregate en route to victory in Istanbul, and Carragher believes his captain's performance against Inter demonstrated that he is warming to the competition once again.

"Stevie is one of the best players in the world," he insisted. "There are a lot of world-class players in the big teams in the Champions League but Stevie's the one who makes the decisive impact in the end. He stole the show again."

Dirk Kuyt's role in Tuesday's win should not be overlooked, however, nor Benítez's faith in a player whose father died following a long battle with cancer last year and who has endured a poor campaign since then.

"I have put a difficult period behind me and I only want to look forward now," said the Dutch forward, scorer of the first against Inter. "It was a great moment for me when I scored. It was so important. It's funny because I said to Stevie that maybe we should now just keep the ball and get a clean sheet. He said, 'No, we want another goal,' and he was right."

RED WATCH: Rafa’s A Consummate Tactician - On The Euro Stage

Rafa Benitez had taken so much flak this week that it was a wonder Mohamed Al-Fayed had not accused him of being part of the conspiracy to murder Princess Diana.

The moronic daubing of Melwood apart, much of the criticism aimed at Benitez appeared justified, the pathetic humbling by Barnsley seemingly applying the penultimate nail in a coffin containing Rafa’s Anfield career which could have been hermetically sealed by a poor result at home to Inter Milan on Tuesday.

Yet once again Benitez proved himself to be the consummate tactician on the European stage, engineering a superb victory on another memorable night at Anfield.

He deserves to take the credit for fielding an attacking formation which applied sustained pressure to the superbly-marshalled Italian defence, which culminated in the breach of the tiring 10-man rearguard in the last five minutes of Tuesday’s match.

The patience exercised by Liverpool as they probed for a weakness, while guarding against a potentially fatal breakaway away-goal, was absorbing.

For once, the substitutions were finely-judged and timed, the introduction of Crouch adding a further burden onto the weary backline shorn of the belligerent Materazzi in time for it to have a positive effect, rather than being the cue for a desperate launching of hopeful crosses into a packed penalty area. In short, Benitez got it right.

So in berating Benitez for his failure to date to mount a credible title challenge, are we failing to sufficiently acknowledge his mastery of this competition and the rewards it has brought to the club, and the joy to us supporters?

It appears that winning the league has assumed Holy Grail status amongst the fans, and understandably so, but should that lead to a state of denial about the achievements of Benitez on the biggest stage?

I sense that many supporters are beginning to progress through the five stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Newcastle Supporter) during which unrealistic expectations cause sufferers to focus on failures and become blind to other, perceived less important, successes.

For Newcastle, of course, this means avoiding relegation; for us, winning the Champions League.

I thought I would never feel the experience of those wonderful European triumphs of the late 70s and early 80s again in my lifetime, only for Istanbul and Athens, along with clashes with Juventus, Barcelona and Chelsea, to add to my collection of treasured memories.

Do we really want to risk throwing all this away to gamble on an alternative who might possibly deliver a league title?

Whatever your views on this, let’s not indulge ourselves in Soviet-style revisionism which denigrates the achievements of previous administrations. Gerard Houllier suffered from this in the latter stages of his tenure, with some fans belittling his five-trophy haul in 2001 as ‘lucky’ or won in poor style.

Benitez’s triumphs in Europe are to be admired not disregarded, and should be a source of pride for every true Red brought up in an environment in which Liverpool were one of the most respected teams in Europe.

So the next time you hear yourself saying “the Champions League is all right, but it’s the league we really want”, just reflect on similar sentiments expressed by Newcastle and Man City supporters in the past based on exaggerated expectations of league success, shortly before they changed managers and were relegated.

And just thank your lucky stars that you can experience nights like Tuesday, with the strong possibility of more to come.

Steven Gerrard Dedicates Liverpool's European Miracle To Rafa Benitez

Overjoyed Rafa Benitez hailed the "perfect" performance from his side, as they produced another European miracle at Anfield.

The normally cautious Liverpool boss could barely hide his delight, as mighty Inter Milan were humbled by two incredible late goals from Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard.

Those two strikes in the final five minutes of a game that had everything - even the dismissal of the pantomime villain Marco Materazzi - could just have given Benitez a lifeline in the fight to save his job.

And he certainly believes that his team have taken a massive stride towards the quarter-finals, after delivering a knock out blow to opponents who had not lost for five months.

"I can't say enough about my team. To score twice at the end is perfect, and it will be very difficult for them now, because we have produced a fantastic performance," a delighted Benitez said.

"I am really pleased for the attitude of the players and the supporters, it was a special night.

"I had confidence we would win, even with five minutes remaining because the team was playing well, we were passing the ball and playing with confidence. Even at the end we knew we could score."

Benitez knew that he was under intense pressure going into the game, because defeat would have left his side with nothing to play for with still three months of the season remaining.

There is a growing feeling within senior levels of the club that he has taken the side as far as he can.

But again last night the canny Spaniard showed that he can never be underestimated when it comes to the Champions' League, as an Inter Milan side who proudly stand 11 points clear at the top of Serie A found to their cost.

And afterwards, the Liverpool boss insisted it wasn't just a victory for him, but the whole club.

"We needed to win as a team but we wanted to progress as a team, for me as a manager I am pleased when we win, so it is a time to be happy," he said.

"I know people have said they had to win for me, but the players have to win for this amazing club. It is a big club, a massive club, and they played with passion.

"I was delighted with their performance, and now I want them to go and finish the job. But we have to be careful, because we know Inter are a very good side, who will still be very dangerous."

Inter were furious with Materazzi's dismissal with manager Roberto Mancini complaining: "We had one or two doubts about the red card, you can say."

But Gerrard summed up the night when he said: "We kept going right to the end, and we deserved our reward because we had the spirit to keep playing."

Steven Gerrard Has Transformed Our Season, Says Dirk Kuyt

Dirk Kuyt has revealed how Steven Gerrard's inspiration transformed Liverpool's season.

The Anfield striker yesterday offered an insight into the drive and ambition of his skipper, even amid the euphoria of a magical night against Inter Milan.

It was Kuyt who provided the goal five minutes from time that finally broke the deadlock in a tense Champions League tie. At that moment, the Dutch striker and his team-mates were thinking only of protecting their lead to take to the San Siro.

But Gerrard had other ideas, and it was his goal that gave Liverpool a vital two-goal buffer. "It's funny because when I scored, we celebrated, and I said to Stevie maybe now we just need to keep the ball and get a clean sheet," he explained.

"We were happy to get a lead, but he turned to me and said 'no, we want another goal, we can get another' and he was right.

"We got another, and that is really important because it made it a great result, and we are obviously really happy with the way it turned out.

"We lost three days ago to Barnsley when everyone expected us to beat them easily. Then you saw a totally different team, but with many of the same players. I suppose that's the magic of football." Jamie Carragher also heaped praise on Gerrard.

He said: "In the Champions League all the top teams come and you see some of the names they've got. But Stevie's the one who does the decisive thing in the end, who provides the big moments," he said.

"That is what makes him one of the best players in the world."