Wednesday 12 December 2018

'Istanbul changed my life - Kiev can do same for Jurgen Klopp' - Rafa Benitez

Steven Gerrard and Rafael Benitez lift the Champions League trophy in 2005. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Steven Gerrard and Rafael Benitez lift the Champions League trophy in 2005. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Luke Edwards

It was the game that changed his life. A victory that ensured Rafael Benitez's name became enshrined in Liverpool legend. Even, now, 13 years after that dramatic Champions League final in Istanbul, the memories spark such raw emotion in the Spaniard that goose bumps shoot up his arms as he talks.

This is what awaits Jurgen Klopp if Liverpool triumph over Real Madrid this weekend; if he becomes the man who secures the club their sixth European Cup. It is a shot at football immortality.

While his other achievements may fade with time, the stories of European success always remain crystal clear at Anfield, the feats of those involved captured in high definition, never to be erased, no matter what follows.

For all his success at Borussia Dortmund, Klopp has never won European football's most gilded prize. Neither had Benitez, when he arrived on Merseyside, but he firmly believes Liverpool can do so again with a team that, he argues, is superior to the one that upset AC Milan more than a decade ago.

Emotional

"I always say Istanbul will be the most emotional final ever because of the way we won, the way we came back," says Benitez, sitting in a room at Newcastle's training ground, happy to be distracted from the continuing uncertainty around his future on Tyneside.

"Everything was going wrong, massively wrong and then after half-time, you see the Liverpool fans singing even though we were 3-0 down. It was massive.

"People say we were lucky in the final, but were we lucky in the earlier rounds when we beat Chelsea [in the semi-final] and Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen? The players did a great job and they had a great belief that we could do this. We were a little lucky against the best team in Europe at this time, but we had also done well.

"People don't remember all the players who were there, who were on the pitch that night. But they [those players] will always remember. It was massive for everyone. The way that we did it... people still think it was just luck, but no. We were unlucky at the start of the game because we lost Harry Kewell early [to injury] and we had to change everything.

"And we were lucky because we scored the three goals in a few minutes. But we were much better than them in extra-time. When we changed to three at the back, that changed everything. We matched them, we had control of the game."

That fightback from 3-0 down was incredible. Liverpool went from damage-limitation exercise to miraculous victory in little over an hour, winning a penalty shoot-out against an AC Milan team that had been blunted, drained and crushed by the unexpected momentum that Steven Gerrard's goal generated shortly after the break.

At half-time, though, Benitez was floundering. "When we concede the second goal, I was thinking what I had to say to the players," he continues. "I was making my notes and then we conceded a third, I looked at the sky. I knew I had to give a speech in English and you know my English now but then, 10 years ago [sic], it was not so good.

"I was thinking about what I would say in English to motivate players because it's not the same as saying something in Spanish. Speaking English, you lose something. I said, 'You have to get something back'. For 45 minutes, we've been working so hard and the main thing was to run through the [new] system and make sure we had everybody ready. I knew that Didi Hamann would control the middle and give some freedom to Gerrard [to go forward]. They could not cope with that."

After the game, Benitez celebrated along with everyone else. "It changed my life in England. To win the League with Valencia in Spain after 31 years changed my life. To win the Uefa Cup with Valencia changed my life, it changed everything... But to come to England and win the Champions League with a different team was massive. It changed everything.

Idol

"Maybe it will change everything for Klopp in Liverpool. He's fine, he's an idol now, but he will be more than that. He was winning with Dortmund, but it would be massive for him."

As for Saturday's final in Kiev, Benitez will not predict the score, but he cannot avoid dropping a hint as to who he thinks will win. If Liverpool can replicate the intensity and speed of their play against Manchester City and Roma, he suspects an ageing Real Madrid team will struggle to contain them.

"The difference between the Premier League and the other leagues is the intensity of the games," he added. "Liverpool and their offensive players, their midfielders, their defence have the intensity to hurt you if they do it well. On the other side, Real Madrid have experience and they have some good players. It will be interesting. On one side, you will see a Liverpool team with lots of passion and intensity and a lot of pressing and crossing and fast counter-attacking against a team with a lot of the qualities needed to manage this kind of situation.

"Real Madrid has the experience and the quality to match them, but Liverpool can do it. They have the intensity and the quality, the passion, the desire. They talk about the miracle of Istanbul, but this team is better."

Benitez would love to take part in another Champions League final, but he has a different club and different goals now. Despite the slow progress in negotiations to extend his contract at St James' Park, Benitez is well aware that, winning a trophy for Newcastle - their first since 1969 - will ensure that he is immortalised on the banks of another famous English river. "I would like to win any trophy again, we have to win something," he finishes, leaning back, with arms outstretched, palms facing the sky. "At 58, I am not young but not old. I'm still young enough, I still have time.

"But I want to be sure that we can compete at Newcastle, that we can find something to compete for and try and win something."

If he fails, if he cannot end English football's most famous infamous trophy drought, he will always have that night in Istanbul. This is Klopp's chance to grab a seat alongside him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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