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In each of the last two seasons Chelsea have dropped just 17 points before sealing the Premiership title. Liverpool this season have already let slip 13.
They are yet to win an away match in the Premiership this campaign, and if they lose at Manchester United on Sunday, they will be 11 points adrift of the leaders. Yet their manager, Rafael Benitez, continues to be adored.
This is Benitez’s third season since replacing Gérard Houllier, and it is about time his institutional revamp bore fruit. It has, after all, cost the club almost £60m in signings. If league form were the only measure, Benitez would be suffering the sort of grumbling (Anfield, historically, does not do outright dissent) that was a feature of Houllier’s final months.
Finishing fifth and third is no improvement on the Frenchman’s record, and a win percentage of 56 as opposed to 51 is neither here nor there if the end of the season again degenerates into a scramble for a Champions League qualifying spot. What saves Benitez’s reputation is the fact that he won the holy grail almost before the quest had begun.
How galling must it have been for Sir Alex Ferguson, who strived 13 years at Manchester United before winning the Champions League, to see Benitez do it in his first season at Liverpool. And how difficult for the Spaniard to follow that success, which seemed to validate so much of what is wrong at the club.
The way in which he dismantled that squad – off-loading Vladimir Smicer, Igor Biscan, Antonio Nunez and Milan Baros, and buying goalkeeper Pepe Reina to replace Jerzy Dudek – suggested an admirable ruthlessness, but it was also an admission of the freakish nature of the victory.
That is true of the whole campaign and not merely of the final – when Liverpool overturned a three-goal first-half deficit against AC Milan and Andriy Shevchenko missed a last-minute sitter in the days when such gaffes were unheard of.
The official version had Benitez at half-time calmly outlining the tactical plan that would turn the game around. More recent stories suggest he was as fraught as anyone else, his scribbles initially showing 12 players on the field for the second half and then 10.
Whichever is correct, the game was won because the introduction of Dietmar Hamann gave Steven Gerrard license to maraud, but therein lies Liverpool’s great problem: Gerrard has been the main man for so long at Anfield that he seems to find it difficult to step down from Olympus and simply be another player. It is possible to buccaneer too much.
That aspect has been brought into sharper focus this season because it is so apparent that Momo Sissoko and Xabi Alonso – one all muscle and bristling aggression, the other all elegance and composure – complement each other perfectly in the centre. The problem is that unless Benitez opts for a five-man midfield – and his purchases of forwards Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt suggest that is far from his intention – Gerrard is consigned to a wide role, and he has made clear his dislike of that.
Play him in the middle, though, and Liverpool lose either the class of Alonso or the bite of Sissoko. The central roles then, anyway, become rather stratified and they fall into the trap of rigidity that has long beset English football. Little wonder Benitez seemed so sanguine about the prospect of Gerrard leaving in the wake of the triumph in Istanbul.
What that victory has given Benitez is time. Yet even at Liverpool, patience will not last for ever.
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