Thursday, March 13, 2008

Benitez Makes 180-degree Turn On Rotation To Square The Circle

Could it really be that an old silver peseta has finally dropped and is now resonating with brilliant effect in the once cluttered head of Rafael Benitez?

The question is asked because beneath the surface there was something a little unfamiliar about Rafa's latest Champions League coup. This is true even though Tuesday's 3-0 aggregate defeat of the Italian champions Internazionale, who have again brushed aside all opposition in Serie A, had many of the Benitez hallmarks.

Most apparent, again, was the almost fiendish attention to tactical detail, something you could have put the mortgage on when the Liverpool manager rushed into the technical area to make the first of his adjustments the moment he saw how his opponents were lining up for the kick-off.

There was that same old frantic ambition to pull, minute by minute, every available string; the same old image of the relentless puppeteer.

Yet there was the new factor. It was that this was a European performance from Liverpool which didn't sail out of a clear blue sky. There was a pattern to it which had been growing sharply over the last few weeks. Though many, including Jamie Carragher, will take much convincing that Benitez's investment in the Slovakian central defender Martin Skrtel is going anywhere but the loss column, no one could deny that Liverpool's performance spoke of a clarity of purpose that had for long been elusive in Premier League action.

Could it just be that under extreme pressure for his job – and the likelihood that his position, failing another home run in the Champions League, would be quite untenable if Everton for a second time edged Liverpool out of the fourth qualifying place – Benitez has reassessed the value of rotation?

If it is so, Benitez's superb quality of tactical organisation may soon enough just have to be seen in another and much more flattering light.

Certainly it would be augmented – at last – by that classic foundation of every pre-Rafalite Liverpool success down the decades ... the confidence of a team who have been given reason to believe in each other – and vital familiarity when the pressure is racked up to an ultimate degree.

When you consider Fernando Torres' contribution to stabilising Liverpool in the league, and how easily he transferred that authority to San Siro with another killing goal, it is quite bizarre to remember how he was forced to ride the bench in those early-season weeks when Liverpool's title chances drained away so abjectly.

Ironically, Benitez's authoritarian tendency grows even as he hints that maybe he sees, finally, that you cannot endlessly juggle players from match to match and still expect ready-made coherence.

Xabi Alonso, Benitez's former favourite and playmaker-elect, was brusquely rejected when he tried to negotiate a compromise on his rival commitments to his wife's maternity ward and the challenge in Milan. Peter Crouch, the unorthodox talent Benitez embraced so successfully when he plucked him from Southampton, pays a high price for his reluctance to sign a new contract without any guarantees about his future on the field. Yet if there are rifts between the dressing room and the manager's office and the boardroom, on the field the sense is of a team who may have just have stumbled upon their version of the lost chord.

Internazionale's Patrick Vieira, who always saw Liverpool as marginal challengers when his professional imperative was to stiffen Arsenal in their battle with Manchester United, admitted that in the defeat of his team this week he saw new depths of experience and competitive character.

Said Vieira: "I think this showed how good the Premier League is now. It is a remarkable achievement to get four clubs into the quarter-finals but it is not really a surprise. The quality is there. Manchester United and Arsenal have shown their ability. Chelsea are very strong and Liverpool have the track record in Europe.

"Liverpool were tough opponents. I think they can go and win now. They have done it before and they know exactly what the competition is about at this stage. They are the most experienced of the teams left in the competition. They know how to get through these ties, they know how to win the European Cup. I think they are the team everyone else want to avoid in the quarter-final draw."

The fear, no doubt, is that Liverpool are now able to add to their brilliant record in the Champions League – one win, two finals in three years and a list of scalps that becomes more spectacular by the season – the growing threat of a team geared for something more than periodic ambushes.

Last weekend the most attentive Anfield-watchers were stunned when they saw the names of Torres and Steven Gerrard on the team sheet for the Newcastle game. Given the potentially season-defining, and economic importance, of the date at San Siro, the old Benitez would have been as likely to play his star men as send flowers to Jose Mourinho.

But then if Liverpool have suffered both on the field and on the terraces this season, unquestionably so has Benitez – and what is more likely to concentrate the mind of a proud man than the prospect of being cast aside, along with his fine strategies and large supply of self-belief?

Defeat at home to Barnsley may not have gone into the bones of the football man who some time ago made himself a course specialist in Europe's most glamorous knockout competition, but it does happen to be true that since that public relations disaster a compulsion to rotate appears to have gone into decline.

Liverpool had some anxious moments at San Siro, and they never threatened to light up the place as Arsenal had done a week earlier, but they did have those qualities noted by Vieira. They had the aura of a team who seemed to know what they were about. This is something you cannot generate from the technical area. It grows from game to game, win to win. It has, maybe, the potential to turn that silver peseta into the purest gold.

Vieira: Experience Key For Reds

Former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira believes Liverpool's Champions League experience makes them the team the others will want to avoid when the quarter-final draw is made in Nyon on Friday.

Vieira was in the Inter Milan side that went out 3-0 on aggregate to the Reds in the last 16 and he has tipped them to regain the trophy they won in May 2005 with a thrilling defeat of Inter's city rivals, AC Milan.

Liverpool became the fourth English side to reach the quarter-finals with their 1-0 win in Milan on Tuesday but are less fancied than Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

However, Vieira believes they are well equipped to succeed - although he hopes Arsenal will go on to win.

He told the Daily Express: "Liverpool were tough opponents and they can go on to win it now.

"They have done it before and know exactly what it is about at this stage. They know how to get through these ties as they showed against us and they know how to win the cup.

"They are the side the others will want to avoid now but I hope Arsenal win it.

"They have been waiting a long time to win this trophy and they deserve to win it. We came very close a couple of seasons ago and I hope this is their year.

"I watched them in the San Siro last week and they were incredible.

"In terms of quality they have an outstanding chance now and I really hope they do it."

Vieira is also not surprised by the presence of four English clubs in the last eight, saying: "It shows how good the Premier League is right now.

"It's a remarkable achievement to get four teams in the last eight but it is not really a surprise.

"The quality is there - Arsenal and Manchester United have shown the ability they have, Chelsea are very strong and Liverpool have the track record in Europe."

Smith Hails Torres' Quality

Liverpool legend Tommy Smith has dubbed Fernando Torres the equal of any Anfield striker of the past 50 years.

Smith watched Torres avenge 43 years of hurt for the midfield hard man, scoring the goal that beat Inter Milan in the San Siro on Tuesday and sent Liverpool into the Champions League quarter-finals.

Back in 1965, the last time Liverpool played at the San Siro, Smith was part of a side who lost an infamous European Cup semi-final to Inter, amid allegations of bribery that persist to this day.

But Torres' second-half strike wiped away the bitterness of that defeat for Smith, who believes the Spaniard is destined to become a Liverpool great.

Smith said: "Torres is up there with the best Anfield strikers of the past 50 years.

"I played alongside Roger Hunt, who was a tremendous player and could score from anywhere - a bit like Torres, who is one of the best I have seen in a red shirt.

"In the 70s, you had Kevin Keegan, a good link player who was always on hand to accept chances.

"And Ian Rush had a great time scoring for the Reds in partnership with Kenny Dalglish. I always said when he was sold to Juventus that they forgot to take Dalglish, too, because he made so many of Rushie's goals.

"Torres has a special ingredient we have not seen for some time. He has the ability to glide past defenders with effortless pace and often places the ball home rather than use power. What a talent!"

Boss Rafael Benitez paid close more than £20million for Torres last summer and is delighted with the impact the 26-goal hitman has had.

He said: "Fernando, he is improving, we all know he can get better. But he is doing his job very well for us, and I am really happy with him.

"Our form is coming right at just the right time of the season. Now we must keep it going to secure fourth spot, also."

Of Friday's draw, Benitez said: "I would be happy to play another English team in the final.

"I would prefer that we were drawn against a non-English team now, though, because everyone knows that the top three in the Premier League are all outstanding, very strong.

"The fact that four English clubs are in the quarter-finals shows that the Premier League is one of the best leagues in Europe and the world.

"The quality of the top four, the quality of the players, shows our league is very strong."

Gerrard Dismisses Liverpool's 'Rivals' Sniping

Rio Ferdinand did not mention Liverpool by name and indeed he wished them good luck for their tie with Inter Milan. But when the Manchester United defender commented that there had been sides who were far from great but had won the Champions League in recent years, most people at Old Trafford thought they knew at least one of the clubs to whom he was referring.

One remarkable FA Cup final apart, Liverpool under Rafael Benitez have been domestically underwhelming but the home and away victories over the Italian champions confirmed their status as one of the great sides in the recent history of the European Cup.

In the last three years, Steven Gerrard has led his side to victory against seven clubs who have lifted the trophy - Juventus, AC Milan, PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona, Marseille, Porto and now Inter - and two more who have reached recent Champions League finals.

Having seen his side counter both Inter's menace on the pitch and the hostile atmosphere of the San Siro to qualify for the quarter-finals, Gerrard reflected that Liverpool were a club who did not have to justify themselves to anyone. "In Europe we are a force, we do not fear anyone," he said. "We have got great experience. I don't want to say who we want to play, and who we don't, in the quarters but I think we can let the rest worry about us because we have a good pedigree in this competition.

"Our record in the Champions League speaks for itself but we don't have to go into the media to defend ourselves or say how good we are. People have said there are great teams who have not won the Champions League but I think our record answers that.

"We have been to the final twice in three years and have won some big games in some important stadiums across Europe, where we have produced some performances of a great European side."

The display against Inter Milan was a case in point. The leading Italian sports daily, Gazzetta dello Sport, polled its reader on the question of why a side on their way to a third successive title had failed against a team who are struggling to re-qualify for the competition.

The options included: missed chances by Julio Cruz and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, poor tactics by Roberto Mancini, who last night withdrew his decision to resign as manager at the end of the campaign, and disunity in the squad. But the main response was - Liverpool were simply too strong.

They may have been helped by the dismissals of Marco Materazzi in the first leg and his replacement, Nicolas Burdisso, in the San Siro but, tactically, Benitez's men played perfectly. "You dream of winning in places like these," Gerrard said. "We probably had more opportunities than they did. With a player like Fernando Torres, you are going to have a chance against anyone and we were pretty comfortable all night."

Steven Gerrard Certain Liverpool Will Get To Champions League Final

Proud Steven Gerrard believes Liverpool are gaining the momentum to carry them through to another European Cup final.

But the Anfield skipper concedes Rafael Benitez’s side have a tough task to secure a third final appearance in the last four seasons in Moscow.

Liverpool impressively despatched Serie A champions Inter Milan on Tuesday night, a 1-0 victory at the San Siro following a 2-0 success at Anfield in the first leg three weeks ago.

It put them in the quarter-finals for the 12th time in the club’s history, with Liverpool having gone all the way to the final on seven of those previous 11 occasions.

After their poor start to the group stage in autumn, Benitez’s men have won five successive games in the Champions League, scoring 19 goals and conceding just one in the process.

There is a strong likelihood Liverpool could be paired with another Premier League team in the draw for the last eight taking place tomorrow in Switzerland, with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea also getting through. Barcelona, Roma, Schalke and Fenerbahce have also progressed, but Gerrard reckons none of those seven will want to come up against an in-form Liverpool.

“We have got momentum, we have, there is no doubt about that, and it could be important,” said Gerrard. “We are playing very, very well now. We cannot get carried away, because there are some monster teams left in it, but we are playing a lot better now.

“In Europe we are a force, we do not fear anyone. We have got great experience in Europe, we have been there and we know what it is all about.

“I don’t want to say who we want to play and who we don’t but I think we can let the rest worry about us, because we have got the pedigree in this competition.

“Our record in the Champions’ League speaks for itself, we don’t have to go in the media to defend ourselves or say how good we are. I honestly believe our record says we are a great team in Europe.”

Since Benitez took charge in the summer of 2004, Liverpool have beaten Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona and Chelsea in the Champions League, a impressive roll call that includes victories at the Nou Camp and now the San Siro.

Despite this unprecedented recent record, Liverpool have been heavily criticised in some quarters for supposedly not being a ‘great’ team.

But Gerrard responded: “People have said that teams that are not great have won the Champions League, but I think we can let our record answer that. We have been to final twice in three years and we have won some big games in some important stadiums across Europe, and we have produced the performances of a great European side.”

Fernando Torres’s 26th goal of the season and a stout defensive performance secured Liverpool their latest major European scalp on Tuesday night.

And Gerrard added: “It is a proud moment, these are the stadiums you want to play in as a player and honestly, you dream about winning in places like this. And I think we deserved it.

“We were always a threat on the counter and we had chances, probably more than they did.

“With a player like Torres you are always going to have a threat and have a chance against anyone. What was pleasing is that we were pretty comf-ortable all night. That was the plan to be solid defensively, and overall we handled it really well.”

Last night’s reserve game against Manchester City was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium.