Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Benitez Wenger comparison does not ring true

There are more fundamental problems afflicting Liverpool Football Club right now than a lack of results on the pitch. The club’s owners are not the right people to oversee such an important sporting institution and they are emblematic of the malaise which Premiership football in England currently finds itself. Nevertheless, the situation on the field of play is also shambolic. The nadir of Liverpool’s season came on Saturday when the club were dumped out of the F.A. Cup by mediocre Championship side Barnsley.

Paradoxically Liverpool’s ownership woes have strengthened the position of manager Rafa Benitez despite the appalling results which he continues to preside over in domestic competition. After the manager clashed publicly with Gillett and Hicks earlier in the season, loyalty to Benitez has become symbolic amongst the supporters, of opposition to the American owners. A simplistic reading of the attitude runs – the Americans don’t much like the manager, we don’t like them, so we’ll continue to back him to the hilt.

Obviously Rafa had in any case won great popularity by winning major silverware at Anfield, and in particular the 2005 Champions’ League. However the Spaniard has not masterminded steady progress year on year in the Premiership and after an encouraging start performances in domestic competition this season have been abject. Tamely surrendering to Barnsley, in the last domestic competition the reds stood a realistic chance of winning, with major players not selected is the latest symptom of Benitez’s failure to master the complexities of domestic competition.

Saturday’s defeat has caused some to suggest that if Liverpool are soundly beaten at home tonight, against Inter Milan in the Champions’ League knock out stages, that Rafa’s spell at Anfield will come to an end. With the continuing uncertainty regarding ownership, I would suggest that Benitez’s job is safe until the end of the season at least. The manager meanwhile has appealed for patience and has insisted that he will bring the league title to Anfield, given time.

If this is to be the case, there is a worrying dearth of quality which Benitez will have to address. The Spaniard has compared himself to Arsene Wenger and has tried to draw a comparison between the Frenchman’s introduction of talented youngsters to the Arsenal squad, and the project which Benitez is engaged in at Liverpool. Given the sound thrashing Liverpool’s youngsters received from those of Arsenal in last season’s League Cup, this is an unconvincing contention.

Benitez cites Ryan Babel and Lucas as promising young players breaking into the first team, but this pair are scant return given the number of duds he has brought to the club. Arsene Wenger has introduced good young players into English football and blooded them in his side with impressive results, all for a small financial outlay. Benitez has spent a great deal of money assembling an unimpressive and sketchy squad.

Europe has been a happier hunting ground for Liverpool and it is the Champions’ League which again offers a chance of redemption for the under-fire manager. Although they face formidable opposition in Inter Milan, it is more than plausible that the team will galvanise effectively and at least give themselves a fighting chance in the second leg. In European competition defensive solidity is rewarded to a greater extent than attacking flare and Liverpool may not be as harshly punished for their lack of cutting edge as they have been in the league and domestic cups.

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