. WHAT? why you ask me? I also don't know!....
by Jonathan Northcroft (UK Sunday Times)
Rafael Benitez has been a devoted chess player since he was a boy and some would say you can see it in his football. The extent to which his second favourite game influences the approach to his favourite one only goes so far, however. Chess is about thinking several steps ahead. While Benitez loves doing this with regard to player fitness, hence rotation, and substitutions, ergo taking Steven Gerrard off in a Merseyside derby, he finds it useless when plotting results. Focusing on one move at a time would have been a disaster for Garry Kasparov. For a manager going into 90 minutes, Benitez thinks the old cliche is as important as an item of religion.
Liverpool Football Club, five times European Cup winners, twice finalists in three seasons, Lions of Istanbul, are just one indifferent night away from slinking out of their favourite competition as early as is possible in a Champions League group campaign. Beating Besiktas at Anfield is essential and their situation is so parlous that if Porto beat Marseille even if Liverpool win on Tuesday, and record victories in their two remaining games, they could still go out of the competition anyway. Benitez was mistaken when he said “we are good enough to win all three of our matches and we know that the situation is still in our hands”. He was on firmer ground when he remarked: “We can talk, talk, talk but I cannot change our current situation unless I prepare the team properly to win the first game and then try to go on from there.”
It is as well the Spaniard is ignoring the bigger picture. Last month Tom Hicks, one of Liverpool’s American owners, revealed that due to a hike in international steel prices the projected cost of Liverpool’s new stadium on Stanley Park has risen £100m to at least £400m. Rising interest rates are already putting pressure on Hicks and his partner, George Gillett, who borrowed a significant amount of the £220m they spent on buying Liverpool. With both interest and construction costs likely to go up further, this is not a time for bad results to start slashing the football club’s income.
Benitez was allowed to spend more than £50m on transfers this summer in an effort to overhaul the rest of the Big Four on the pitch. Off it, just keeping up with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal has required 90-minute miracles over the past three years. Chelsea have Roman Abramovich.
Manchester United took £37m more from matchday revenue than Liverpool last season and Arsenal, with their new Emirates Stadium, similar. Until 2010, when Liverpool have their new ground, which Hicks and Gillett want to have a capacity of 75,000, help is required from Benitez and his players to keep the coffers topped up.
Liverpool’s unlikely 2005 triumph in Istanbul brought the club £21.2m in Champions League prize money. Last season, when the team again upset odds to reach another final, the prize money was £22.3m. Factor in gate receipts and spin-offs and Liverpool made £60m from those two Euro campaigns alone.
Seeing his club slink into the Uefa Cup this year, or even worse, go out of Europe by Christmas, a fate that befell Manchester United two seasons ago, would not cheer Hicks, even if he does have a personal fortune in excess of $1bn. “We know we must win. It is important to us as a club. It is important to the financial situation,” Benitez acknowledged.
When pressed, though, Benitez tried to play the latter down. Gillett and Hicks are sufficiently long-term in their outlook for the manager to be justified when he added: “You must keep calm. If you lose it is not the end of history,” and he said he did not think his transfer budget would be cut if the worst came to the worst. “In my meetings with the Americans we were talking about everything but not really money from the Champions League,” he said. “We have plans. Okay, if you qualify and win more games then the plan will be easier because you have more money, but this competition is not a priority for money. The Americans are being very supportive. After all, when you prepare a plan it is not for one year, you prepare for several years. When we discussed these plans we were not talking about money, we were talking about the plans for the future and they are very pleased with the ideas.”
Besiktas looked a middling side even while defeating Liverpool in the Inonu stadium last month. They were beaten 6-0 by Leeds United the last time they played a Champions League game in England and have won just six times in 21 matches in the competition. Benitez’s Liverpool are used to Turkey and comebacks and everything points to a home win. But that was the case before Marseilles visited Anfield and the French team left with a 1-0 victory after what was arguably the worst Liverpool performance of Benitez’s reign. He finds it impossible to explain his team’s sudden slump in Europe.
“You must approach the game with confidence and try to do things that have shown in the past that you are a good team,” said Benitez. “Am I surprised that we are in this situation? No. This is the Champions League and if you make one mistake you can be in trouble, you will be in a bad situation. We know we are capable of winning against Besiktas at home because we have been playing better in the last three or four games. Because of what we have achieved in the past, if we were to go out now people would say it is the end of something, but I think we have a better squad now and if we do the right things against Besiktas and win then we have confidence to go forward. It is a time to believe.”
It does not help being without Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso, and an injury crisis has left Benitez relying on three English stalwarts. Gerrard, naturally, Jamie Carragher, of course, and Peter Crouch. Crouch has had less playtime than a schoolboy in detention this season but is about to get his chance. “You can see how important he was to us the other night,” said Benitez. “Crouch showed on Sunday and against Cardiff what I ask of all the players ? they must be determined, when they are picked, to do their part.”
If Carragher has slipped from the peerless standards he has set over the past three seasons there are mitigating circumstances. “He is having to play a lot of games in a row right now but we know that if he is going to play the last games of the season he is going to need some rest, and we will give him that. Not playing for the national team will mean when the international break comes we can give him time.”
Carragher, in fact, has been battling on despite not being fully recovered from the broken rib and collapsed lung he suffered playing against Sunderland in August. “He was having to work a lot harder because the team was not playing well and we were having to defend a lot,” said Benitez. He, also, is on the back foot.