A perplexed Rafael Benitez is struggling in the sidelines as his club looks to find some momentum in England and Europe.
In 2001, little did anyone know at that time but Gerard Houllier’s managing of Liverpool had peaked. They won five trophies then, but missed out on the two big ones – the UEFA Champions League and the Holy Grail of English football, the Premiership. By 2004, six years after the Frenchman arrived in Anfield, change was in the air.
Around that time, the team and club management thought highly of Valencia manager Rafael Benitez whose side won the Spanish La Liga and the UEFA Cup but who seemed to want out of the Spanish club.
Some possible replacements were named --- Jose Mourinho, Alan Curbishly, and Martin O’Niell -- but Benitez seemed the runaway favorite.
The Valencia manager was unhappy that the club’s sporting director Jose Garcia Pitarch – to his thinking – underappreciated his value to the club. He was upset that management didn’t sign the players he wanted and to make things worse, they brought in footballers he thought he didn’t need. In one press conference to present one of the acquisitions, Uruguayan Nestor Canobbio, he shocked everyone by exclaiming that if he had his way, Canobbio wouldn’t see a minute of playing time. Frothing at the mouth, Benitez then blurted out “he asked for a sofa but the club brought him a lampshade.”
It was all over between Benitez and Valencia from thereon.
Three years later, the scene in Anfield has all the makings of déjà vu. Benitez’ concern is to take advantage of the coming January transfer window that will allow the Merseyside team to claim players it will need for the homestretch in the Premiership and if they do advance, in the Champions League. Liverpool has not won the domestic trophy in almost two decades and it has been a major source of embarrassment as Manchester United has overtaken them as England’s pre-eminent club. The gaffer also hoped to lock down Argentinean midfielder Javier Mascherano, who they acquired from West Ham United, but the funds to secure his long term stay with the Reds have yet to be released.
Instead, Liverpool’s new American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett came out with the statement:
"We made a significant investment in the playing squad during the summer and desperately want this team to succeed.
"There are some very important games coming up in the next couple of weeks and all of us need to focus on winning those games and getting the best out of the players we already have at the club.
"We will leave any talk of buying or selling players until we come across to Liverpool in December and sit down with the Manager then."
Benitez was chastened, told to keep his sentiments to himself, and to utilize the players he previously acquired. If Rafa was somber prior to the Newcastle match, he was defiant even insolent in the press conference afterwards.
While Rafa’s sentiments about taking advantage of the transfer window may be on the ball, his system and management style has seen the team let slip a number of opportunities to move up in the Premiership or even in Europe. The historic Besiktas win notwithstanding, all if not paved for advancing deep into the Champions League. He may be right to platoon his players for the long campaign ahead, but it too hurts the consistency and confidence of some of the players. It’s hard to fathom his constant complaints over the need for new players because since he joined Liverpool, he himself put the team together. He should be the last one to complain. If he is indeed an astute observer with a keen eye for talent then why have some players underperformed? And why isn’t he playing Peter Crouch more?
In the corporate world, he’d get fired for his insolent answers to the media that are thinly veiled jabs at team management:
Media: What did he think of England’s ouster from Euro 2008?
Benitez: I prefer to concentrate on training and coaching my team.
Media: What about the threat of Newcastle’s threat this weekend?
Benitez: I am focusing on coaching and training my team.
Last week Benitez was asked if he would be interested in coaching Bayern Munich, he said he’d turn them down without batting an eyelash. And when further prodded if he’d be interested in the England managerial job, he opened the floodgates for speculation with: “You never know what might happen, maybe.”
It certainly doesn’t help that sources within the club are said to be leaking rumors about infighting between the two American partners and other unsavory comments. If anything, the communication problems indicate that there’s a breakdown somewhere and that other managers have been very unprofessional in their dealings. The row has been reported to unsettle the team’s veteran players including team captain Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Pepe Reina, and Xabi Alonso. On the other hand, Benitez’ relationship with long-time assistant Paco Ayestaran broke down as his trainer will be departing for Spain come the new year. Ayestaran has been quoted as saying that Benitez’ constant horning in his job became a little too unbearable for him. And now Benitez is showing up his new owners.
Their fortunes in the Champions League and the upcoming December match with archrival Manchester United could very well determine Benitez’ status and the direction the club will be taking.
In the meantime, the drama continues.
THE DAY AFTER I POSTED THIS (and it also came out in Thursday's Business Mirror) LFC BEAT FC PORTO 3-1.