11 March 2008

Rafael Benitez trying to keep mind on the game amid instability

Oliver Kay in Milan

As the arch strategist of European football, Rafael BenÍtez is in the uncomfortable position of knowing that it will take at least one false move to send Liverpool out of the Champions League at the San Siro this evening. Having seemingly done the hard work at Anfield, running up a 2-0 lead over Inter Milan, they are in a commanding position in the tie, but, at this point, does BenÍtez opt to stick or to twist?
In his pre-match press conference last night, BenÍtez emphasised the importance of scoring an away goal, which would leave Inter needing to score four times, but he is also acutely aware of the need to keep Roberto Mancini’s team at bay for as long as possible and to deny them the comfort that an early goal would bring.
The obvious game plan would be to strike a cautious balance between defending and counter-attacking, but that plan is going to require a rethink, given that Xabi Alonso, a player whose intelligence and eye for a pass makes him integral to such a strategy, is at his girlfriend’s side in a maternity ward 800 miles away on Merseyside.
Perhaps that is why BenÍtez sounded unhappy with Alonso as he explained his stance last night. Perhaps it is simply because the Liverpool manager, who stayed in Japan when his father died during the Club World Championship tournament in December 2005, is a football obsessive.
Perhaps it is because his relationship with Alonso, which his players once likened to that between father and son, has been
severely strained over the past two months and might be close to breaking point.
BenÍtez did not condemn Alonso’s choice outright, but nor, when asked whether he understood the player’s point of view, did he express the slightest empathy with the father-to-be, whose pleas to fly out today, if the situation allowed, were firmly rejected. “We were talking, but he had a clear idea,” the manager said. “He wanted to come if everything was OK, but we can’t wait and wait and wait. The most important thing is to think about what to do with the other players.”
The answer is likely to include an important role for Lucas Leiva, the 21-year-old Brazil midfield player, who has already been preferred to Alonso in several matches since the turn of the year. Lucas cannot match Alonso’s passing ability - nor can anyone at Anfield, not even Steven Gerrard - but he will offer a more mobile and dogged presence in central midfield alongside Javier Mascherano, who, to BenÍtez’s immense relief, has been passed fit after missing the
weekend victory over Newcastle United because of a dead leg.
BenÍtez has also had to contend with the
latest twist in the Anfield takeover saga, but is unlikely to be unsettled by last night’s developments, news of which reached him shortly before he arrived at the San Siro for his prematch press conference.
Asked for his reaction, BenÍtez said: “We are just thinking about the game.”
It is just as well. Inter, for all their problems in the first leg at Anfield, are a quality side, with a six-point lead at the top of Serie A, and eager to restore a little local pride after Arsenal, one of three English quarter-finalists already confirmed, knocked out AC Milan in the San Siro last week. That may have been a spectacular victory, but BenÍtez, with the hard work done in the first leg, will simply hope for a straightforward passage this evening.

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