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Saturday, April 16, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

In face of adversity, Benitez steers Liverpool to victory


LONDON -- "Things are only impossible until they're not."

Christopher Davies

-- Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Liverpool: The Next Generation is proving that what seemed the impossible dream can become reality.

Its 2-1 aggregate victory over Juventus which set up a Champions League semifinal against Chelsea was so much against all the odds that King Canute probably had an easier challenge.

Rafael Benitez's team was, most believed, going to Turin just to make up the numbers.

When Steven Gerrard, the heart and inspiration of Liverpool, was ruled out with a groin strain it was hardly worth the Reds traveling to Italy to play the star-studded nailed-on certainties of Juventus.

Benitez and his team believed they could achieve what they were told was impossible and they did.

It was not pretty and the goalless draw (a result Liverpool has not managed in the Premiership this season), which set up a semifinal showdown against Chelsea, brought few comparisons with the glory days of old when Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen helped Liverpool dominate Europe with style and a swagger.

However, as an example of doing what the job required under the circumstances against a side many believed would at least reach the Champions League final, it was a coaching and tactical master class, Liverpool following its stirring first-leg performance with a dogged, organized defensive away display.

In European football terms its 2-1 aggregate victory was a classic of the genre.

"We changed our tactics because they were strong down the middle and I think we nullified them well," said defender Jamie Carragher. "A lot of the credit for this result has to go to the manager because he chose the formation, he chose the tactics and it all worked really well."

Juventus coach Fabio Capello was gracious in defeat.

"Obviously, it is painful, not just for me but for everyone at the club because getting to the end of the Champions League is very important to this club.

"I have to congratulate Rafa, tactically he was clever. He decided to play very defensively but his team followed his plans very well. They left us very little room to work in, there was hardly any chances and Liverpool was excellent in the way it played." The impression was that Juventus believed it only had to turn up and it would gain the 1-0 win that would have seen them advance.

It was up against a weakened Liverpool side that, in the absence of Gerrard, had been forced to fast-track the return of Xabi Alonso.

The Spaniard played his first match since breaking an ankle against Chelsea on New Year's Day and repaid Benitez's faith with a performance of sheer authority and boundless energy in midfield to the extent that Pavel Nedved, potentially Juventus' most influential player, struggled to make an impact.

True, Juventus was poor (and that's being kind), but football folk will tell you that a team can play only as well as the opposition allows.

Benitez is not exactly a European football rookie and expertly prepared his team for what was called the biggest game in the last 20 years for Liverpool.

It passed the test with flying colors, Benitez organizing his side to compensate for the absence of Gerrard, with the expertise we should expect from a man who last season won the Spanish title for the second time with Valencia before leading it to victory in the UEFA Cup final.

MANAGING Liverpool was always going to be a challenge for Rafael Benitez but he could not have foreseen some of the problems that would be in store for him.

Last summer, Liverpool offloaded its strike force of Emile Heskey (to Birmingham) and Michael Owen (to Real Madrid).

In their place came Djibril Cisse, a £14 million capture from Auxerre.

Eyebrows were raised when a succession of Spaniards arrived at Anfield -- Antonio Nunez, Josemi, Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia.

Cisse broke a leg in September and returned as a substitute against Juventus earlier this week.

Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Milan Baros, Neil Mellor and Harry Kewell also sustained long-term injuries, Benitez wondering whether some of Kewell's injuries were actually in his mind.

Despite Liverpool's progress to the Champions League knockout stage -- without the ineligible Ferdando Morientes who joined from Real Madrid in January -- few expected them to progress.

Two convincing wins over Bayer Leverkusen were put down to the Germans being a weak side and when Liverpool drew Juventus, well, that was that.

But Benitez has proved to be a winner during his 10-year coaching career. He guided Extremadura and Tenerife to the second-division title in Spain before moving to Valencia in 2001, where he ended their 30-year wait to win La Liga.

Having outwitted Capello, Benitez will go head-to-head again with Jose Mourinho who has "won" 3-0 this season, Chelsea beating Liverpool twice in the Premiership and in the Carling Cup final.

Despite that ominous record and a 31-point gap between the teams in the Premiership, Benitez is relishing the chance to get the better of a coach who calls himself "the special one."

Benitez said: "We are getting a lot of confidence from these Champions League games. It will be difficult and for me Chelsea will be favorites. They are top of the Premiership but we have nothing to lose.

"We can only win. We have played them three times this season and the last two matches have been very close. Maybe it is our turn now to win."

THE DEFEAT OF Juventus completed a bad, sad week for Italian football.

The previous night AC Milan beat Inter Milan 1-0, a game that was abandoned after 71 minutes as Inter supporters threw around 150 lighted flares on the pitch, one hitting Milan goalkeeper Dida.

"Italy is the new England," an Italian said to me, meaning Italy is now the hooligan capital of European football, an ignominious distinction.

There is what amounts to anarchy in Serie A, the ultras -- the hardcore fans -- almost above the law. The ultras wield much power in and around stadiums to the extent their area is effectively a no-go one.

Once a scooter was brought into the Inter curva (area in the tribune) with impunity and subsequently thrown into the tiers below.

Despite their disgraceful behavior on Tuesday, Inter fans don't have the worst of reputations. This dubious honor belongs to Lazio (fascist thugs) and Fiorentina (extreme violence, fans burned down a player's house after an 8-2 loss to Lazio).

Police do nothing in Rome's Olympic Stadium as Lazio supporters unveil fascist banners and Nazi flags. Arrests are minimal and, interestingly, after the Inter fans had caused the Euro derby against Milan to be abandoned no one from Inter would criticize those responsible.

Even Milan said it did not want Inter thrown out of Europe.

Draw your own conclusions.

There are signs outside San Siro saying it is an offense to bring flares and other potential missiles into the stadium, but the Inter ultras took little or no heed of such rules and regulations.

"There were two or three hundred hooligans who were involved in throwing the flares," said Milan police spokesman Paolo Scarpi. "They have been caught on video camera -- they were the usual hotheads from the Inter sector."

Which begs the question -- if the hotheads are known why were they not banned from the stadium?

Maybe we know the answer.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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