21 February 2008

Rafael Benitez at home in pro-European side of Liverpool’s split personality

by Oliver Kay The Times

To some it might sound like a statement of the bleeding obvious and to others a rare and possibly ill-advised admission of weakness, but Rafael BenÍtez was certainly speaking truthfully yesterday when he said that he finds it easier to influence his Liverpool team and their performances in the Champions League than in the Barclays Premier League.
A 2-0 victory over Inter Milan, the runaway leaders of Serie A, at Anfield on Tuesday enabled Liverpool to take a giant step towards the Champions League quarter-finals and continued their remarkable record of beating the most illustrious opponents on the European stage while flirting with mediocrity on the domestic front. The win, courtesy of late goals from Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard, came just three days after an ignominious FA Cup defeat at home to Barnsley, which itself followed a run of just one win in seven Premier League matches, but such is their track record in Europe that it surprised relatively few people, least of all BenÍtez.
“In Europe you can approach a game tactically in a different way,” the Liverpool manager said when asked to explain the contradiction between their domestic and Champions League form. “In England, it is a different style of football and more difficult for the manager to influence what goes on. It is not as simple to influence the game with tactics in England the way it is elsewhere in Europe.”
This may be interpreted by some as an admission that his management style, with a heavy emphasis on strategy, is ill-suited to the blood and thunder of the Premier League. Certainly there is anxiety in the Anfield boardroom at his failure to mount a serious challenge for the league title this season – anxiety that would be troubling for him even without the damage done by his fallout with Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, the club’s American owners, in the autumn.

Liverpool, though, come to life on European nights. Gerrard may not be a shrinking violet in the Premier League, but many of his defining moments at Anfield have come in the Champions League. “Stevie is one of the best players in the world,” Jamie Carragher said. “I think he is made for the Champions League, when all the top teams come up against us. There are a lot of world-class players in the big teams, but Stevie stole the show again. There is just something about us that we are always confident in Europe.”
The discrepancy can also be seen in the form of Kuyt. The Holland forward has scored just three goals in 22 Premier League appearances this season – two of them from the penalty spot against Everton at Goodison Park in October – but he has collected five goals in seven appearances in European competition. His 85th-minute goal on Tuesday may have looked a little fortuitous, as his shot appeared to go through Maicon, the Inter defender, and bounce over the goal-keeper, but he took his chance with far more conviction than he has shown in the Premier League of late. “It was a great moment for me when I scored,” Kuyt said. “It was so important. I have put a difficult period behind me and I only want to look forward now.”
Kuyt’s goal brought immense relief for Liverpool, who had struggled to make their numerical advantage tell after Marco Materazzi, the Inter defender, was sent off in the first half for two bookable offences, both of them fouls on Fernando Torres. Roberto Mancini, the Inter coach, suggested that both yellow cards were harsh, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic appeared to have little sympathy with his teammate. When asked why Inter had lost, the Sweden forward tersely replied: “Why don’t you ask Materazzi?” The former Everton defender will be suspended when the teams meet again in the second leg at the San Siro on March 11 and Iván Córdoba, who damaged his cruciate knee ligaments in the closing stages of Tuesday’s game, will also be missing from the Inter defence.
Mancini felt it was not a coincidence that Inter conceded goals twice after the injury to Córdoba, although Liverpool’s supporters may prefer to ascribe it to tactical genius on the part of BenÍtez. As for what they made of it in the boardroom, the result was just a blessed relief.

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