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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Rafa Benitez turns into Gerard Houllier - Drop Robbie Keane For Crunch Match

Rafa Benitez turns into Gerard Houllier

By CHRIS BASCOMBE, 31/01/2009
WHEN Rafa Benitez’s name was first put to the Liverpool board in October 2003, one director objected.

“He looks a bit like a Spanish Gerard Houllier to me,” said the cautionary voice.

Once he had arrived at Anfield the following summer, Benitez proceeded to dismantle any such fears, providing a welcome antidote to the erratic, paranoid ramblings which undermined the last two years of Houllier’s reign.

Deep into his fifth season on Merseyside, there are worrying signs of Benitez’s gradual transformation into the Houllier who departed Liverpool.

You could be forgiven for thinking there’s an Anfield script for under-siege bosses. Talk of ‘five-year plans’ carries a déjà vu warning, while the old ditty about how long it took Sir Alex Ferguson to win his first title has become a timeless classic.

Like Houllier, the pragmatic, likeable and brilliant coach who won silverware in his first two seasons, Benitez has now become a perplexing figure, a man struggling with a persecution complex.

It speaks volumes when the most lucrative managerial deal in Anfield history is presented as an act which undermines rather than reassures him.

Naturally, he has found ammunition thanks to the behind-the-scenes shambles, although he’s as much a beneficiary as victim. Four of Liverpool’s six-man board wanted Benitez’s position as manager reviewed last summer, and the same individuals believe there should be serious discussion about his future this May if he doesn’t sustain a title challenge.

TWO'S COMPANY - Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez with assistant Sammy Lee

A defeat to Chelsea today may even test his alliance with the fickle Tom Hicks, who must agree to his co-owner’s wish to shelve Benitez’s contract offer. That would undoubtedly signal the beginning of the end of his reign.

Boardroom dissenters felt compelled to agree to Hicks’ demand for a contract extension while Liverpool were top of the league last December.

They also felt they were serving the will of The Kop and herein lies one of the reasons Liverpool managers are vulnerable to an ascent into presumed dictatorship. The Anfield dugout is acclaimed unlike any in world football. Once he has won the hearts and minds of the people, a Liverpool manager inspires religious devotion.

Houllier enjoyed this for a time between 2001-02 and post-Istanbul Benitez was afforded the same status. Both have learnt to milk it during times of stress. Benitez has played ‘the fan card’ so much lately he could enjoy a profitable poker career.

On the back of such affection, the affable, intelligent, quietly-spoken modesty which typified their early years gives way to an erratic, megalomaniac pursuit of self-preservation and self-congratulation — but not enough self-assessment.

Criticism used to be brushed off but is now viewed as an act of sacrilege. Houllier used to go through Press cuttings with a highlighter pen in order to dress down detractors. Benitez has appointed his own media watchdog, Juan Francesco, to report to him on every critical sentence uttered in print, TV, radio or on Liverpool websites.

TWO BAD - then Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier with his assistant Phil Thompson in 2004

The disintegration of Houllier’s regime was traced to the departure of his right-hand man, Patrice Bergues, after the 2001 treble.

Again, the parallels are unavoidable. Rafa’s chief scout Paco Herrera and assistant manager Pako Ayesteran were voices of wisdom who have gone, replaced by backroom devotees who react to every Benitez decision with gushing applause rather than analysis.

“There’s no one there to say ‘no’ to him any more,” said one Anfield source.

Add to this a cautious tactical approach. Houllier used to order print-outs of the number of shots on goal and corners Liverpool won to distribute to disbelieving journalists. Benitez trotted out a statistic about the number of goals Liverpool scored last season when asked if he was ‘too defensive’.

His press conferences are also becoming an echo. In November 2002, Houllier stated: “We have been a victim of our own success after doing so well last year. But it is good people had greater expectations this season.”

This month, Benitez said: “Everyone thinks this is the year because expectations are so high. We are where we are because we’re doing things right.”

Rafa would be wise to learn from Houllier’s fate. Anything but victory over Chelsea and a vast improvement in body, mind and behaviour will ensure the attention switches away from the boardroom and stays on the dugout.

That may assist the players who admit the pressure appears to be focused elsewhere. For Xabi Alonso, Liverpool have been talking the talk but not walking the walk this year.

“Playing well is what gets you respect,” he said. “If anyone talks too much and doesn’t perform, he is danger of losing respect from other professionals.”

After his rants against Ferguson, Everton and contract dissatisfaction, Benitez should listen to such sage advice. It would be a good start for Rafa to ask his media analyst to find cuttings of how he managed the club between 2004-2006. That was when he made a habit of overseeing miracles to win trophies.

If he’s going to end Liverpool’s wait for the title, he needs another one.

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