Sport Soccer

Friday 22 September 2017

The imperfect perfectionist is first victim of Anfield circus

Rory Smith

APPROACHED by a newspaper hoping to engage him as a columnist for this summer's World Cup, Rafael Benitez politely refused, explaining that such a task would be too much work for a man hoping to enjoy a summer with his family.

"For example," he said. With him, there is always an example. "When I did commentary for Spanish TV on a Real Betis match, I spoke to players from both teams to find out how they'd line up, how they expected to play. Only then could I say how well they'd executed their plans. It has to be right.

"I cannot just do it in 20 minutes, like some pundits."

Obsessive, meticulous, perfectionist. Given that he would put such effort into a newspaper column, it is easy to imagine the diligence with which he attacked his day job. He returned to his Melwood office after another of the emotional, intense European nights which became his speciality in six years at Anfield to watch re-runs of the game, highlighting areas for improvement.

Such traits are highly prized at Liverpool. Little wonder that when Benitez arrived, fresh from La Liga and Uefa Cup triumphs at Valencia, the coach who had seemed restive in his early years looked to have found a club where he fitted.

The Kop took to him immediately, any doubts as to his ability engendered by a mediocre first league campaign washed away in the fevered fantasy of Istanbul in 2005; any fears over his character dismissed by his appearance in a German pub thronged with Liverpool fans prior to victory in the last 16. The breathless FA Cup triumph that followed in Cardiff in 2006 cemented his place in Liverpool's folklore. Even defeat in Athens, AC Milan's revenge, in 2007 and the barbs of opposing fans could not shake Anfield's faith.

Benitez was the conqueror of Europe, Jose Mourinho's nemesis and Shankly's heir, protector of the Liverpool way.

Anfield was a very different place, though. David Moores had sold the club for £218.9m to Tom Hicks and George Gillett in February 2007, the new 'custodians' vowing to take Liverpool to the Promised Land: the league title. The Americans, their promises and their wallets empty, would serve only to deepen the club's purgatory.

They'd scarcely been in charge for six months when details emerged of conversations with Jurgen Klinsmann over the possibility of him succeeding Benitez, should he decide to go.

The Spaniard bit back, repeating the mantra that he was "focused on preparing and coaching his team", the dismissive, arrogant phrase his absentee landlords had directed at him as they sharpened the knife to plunge in his back.

In hindsight, that was the breaking point. Since then, Benitez has found himself doing anything but focusing on preparing and coaching his team.

To borrow one of the terms he deploys most to describe the players he tries to bring to his sides, the Spaniard was condemned to operate between the lines. He has played politician, forging shifting alliances with Liverpool's power brokers and eventually learning to thrive amid the backbiting and infighting as the relationship between Hicks, Gillett and Rick Parry, the erstwhile chief executive, deteriorated.

And he played bank manager, too, as the debt mountain placed on the club by Hicks and Gillett soared, wheeling and dealing to balance the books. In Benitez's own words, Liverpool have, for two years, been a company, not a football team.

He enjoyed only limited success in the role of the Spanish Harry Redknapp. Many of his buys have been ill-judged, his failure to leave Liverpool with a squad imbued with quality in depth the most damning indictment of his tenure. That did not stop him mounting Liverpool's first genuine title challenge for almost a decade, though. That success, however, could never last in such a flawed environment.

Benitez's magic touch deserted him, his five-year, £20m contract signed in March 2009 -- the final act in his struggle for power with Parry -- left looking like a monument to the club's folly. Liverpool, in the space of a few months, lost their Champions League status and found themselves cut adrift from the Premier League elite.

Anfield has been afforded a glimpse of the obscurity that awaits England's most decorated club in any future in which Hicks and Gillett remain. Whatever his faults, whatever his mistakes, whatever his spend, Benitez's exit should not be seen as proof that he is the man to blame.

Liverpool's imperfect perfectionist is simply the first victim. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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