Rafa's silent treatment
It was one of those vignettes which Rafael Benitez has come to love so much about Liverpool.
One of his club's laundry men stopped him yesterday to say he had a premonition that the club's Europa League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid at Anfield tonight will have echoes of perhaps the Spaniard's greatest Anfield occasion of all, against Olympiakos six years ago, when they needed to win by two goals and just managed it.
"He told me it would be like that night all over again, with a great atmosphere and a late goal to win it at the end," Benitez recounted. "I told him that, if there was a guarantee it would be like this and we will win 3-1, I will take that right now."
Benitez wafted away the question of whether the laundry man, Graham McKinlay, had also asked for reassurances that the Spaniard was not about to swap a Merseyside life for one on the banks of Turin's River Po, by heading off to Juventus.
"He only talked about this game," the Spaniard said. But the worry for those who wish he would stay is that no one at Anfield is displaying too much concern about the thought of him leaving, at present.
Asked if anyone in the senior management had, out of concern about the swirl of rumours linking Benitez to Juve, sat him down, urged him not to respond to any blandishments from Turin and instead stay put at Anfield, Benitez replied with a flat "no" and then hinted that he feels he should have been treated far better.
"Everyone expects it will be like this," Benitez said. "For one year I have been listening to stories about Martin O'Neill taking my job -- or (Jurgen) Klinsmann or (Frank) Rijkaard or (Jose) Mourinho or Guus Hiddink, a lot of names -- so I have to keep doing my job, focus on the next game."
That may be easier said than done for Benitez today, because events in Turin will have unravelled further before he sends an injury-depleted side out to face Quique Sanchez Flores' men, who lead 1-0 from last week's first leg in the Vicente Calderon.
Juventus have called an extraordinary general meeting today at which Andrea Agnelli -- son of former owner Umberto Agnelli -- is likely to be appointed president. That probably means serious money is to be spent at the club this summer.
Whether Benitez is the manager whom Agnelli wants to have spending it remains unclear, but detailed reports from Italy suggest Benitez's agent Manuel Garcia Quillon has a contractual deal for his client 99pc agreed, in preparation for Liverpool being ready to part company with him this summer. It has been known since Liverpool's Champions League exit in December that his future would be under review post-season.
Though the purchase of the 18-year-old Charlton Athletic midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, finalised yesterday for an initial fee of £1.7m, seemed to be an indication that Benitez was making plans for another season at Anfield, the manager declared it that it was actually part of a broader mission for the club and the need for more English players in a European competition quota.
"I told the club that we had to do it because it would be good for the future of the club," Benitez said.
The Spaniard's stock has fallen in the course of this desperate season and as the club's urgent search for £100m in new equity partners -- which demanded a sense of stability -- has given way to a longer-term search for a new proprietor, one of the primary reasons for keeping him has gone. At the very best, the situation seems fluid, with Liverpool's ability to hire a replacement willing to take on the huge expectations of a club in financial limbo creating as much uncertainty as the Spaniard's ability to find work elsewhere.
What wouldn't Benitez give today for the kind of criticism being levelled at his predecessor Gerard Houllier when Liverpool's last Uefa Cup semi-final second leg brought Barcelona -- with a young Pepe Reina in goal -- to Anfield nine years ago.
Liverpool's solid defensive displays in the tournament led to them being characterised as a boring, over-cautionary team. "You have betrayed football, Mr Houllier," the then manager was told by a Spanish journalist after Liverpool had progressed to the final, to which Houllier memorably replied of the Catalans: "They kept the ball. We kept the result."
Benitez's defence has kept nothing; imploding to a state which bears no comparison to Houllier's. Where once Benitez's side mirrored the Frenchman's in Europe with their pragmatism and discipline, the goal scored by Diego Forlan in last week's first leg somehow symbolised how bad things have become and how Benitez's decision to employ more attack-minded full-backs this season has come back to haunt him.
Glen Johnson and Sotiorios Kyrgiakos were last week's culprits: Atletico, with Sergio Aguero back from suspension alongside Forlan, will believe they can score again tonight.
Neither does Benitez know where his goals might come from, with the injured Fernando Torres' understudy David Ngog and Dirk Kuyt both injury doubts. If Benitez hopes that Ryan Babel is ready to seize his moment, he will be disheartened to learn that the erratic Dutchman feels that training to become a left-side attacker has left him shorn of attacking skills.
"I have not been training as a striker for four years, so if you cannot improve a position over the years you can't switch on to it straightaway. It is a semi-final against Atletico, so it will be difficult." So said a player yesterday who was considered one of Europe's finest young prospects when Benitez signed him.
It will be to the old guard Benitez must turn: men like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, who lifted that last Uefa Cup and appreciate what it means to a club like Liverpool.
"We have some players here now who don't know what it means to win a trophy of this value," Benitez said. "The players with experience will be pushing them against Atletico, they will have to be leaders and be really positive."
Manchester United may also not be delighted to hear that this game is certainly far more important to Liverpool than Sunday's clash with Chelsea. "This game is the bigger game," Benitez said of his two fixtures in the next four days.
Of course, European glory is always possible when the venue is Anfield, and it may be what it takes to revive the relationship between this club and manager.
But if an advance to a Hamburg final and victory there mirroring the win in Dortmund against Alaves nine years ago is not enough to repair things, then there could be a remarkable symmetry for Benitez -- who signed off at Valencia six years back after seeing them lift the same trophy, against Marseille.
The most elegant question of yesterday was offered by a Spanish journalist who asked: "Is this the last big European hoorah for Rafa Benitez at Anfield?" To which Benitez replied: "I hope there will be many more European nights like tomorrow."
Though whether he and Liverpool would be enjoying them together he made less than clear. (© Independent News Service)