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MARTIN SAMUEL: Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has to be a Champions League Lyon tamer

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04 Nov 2009 08:06:54

MARTIN SAMUEL: Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has to be a Champions League Lyon tamer

My future is against Lyon, said Rafael Benitez. He meant to make clear that he would let no speculation interfere with his preparations for a supremely important match, yet there was an unfortunate ambiguity in the statement, placing the status of the Liverpool manager in sharper focus. More than any game in recent memory, Benitez's future does appear to be wrapped up in this one. The price of failure at Stade Gerland would be a revaluation of Benitez's progress after five years at Liverpool and, beyond that, who knows? Tough task: Rafa Benitez faces a difficult night in Lyon Estimations of the financial cost of removing him differ wildly, but it is the sporting consequence that should trouble Liverpool more. While Benitez may feel he has never received the same backing as, say, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, he has been allowed to turn Liverpool into an Iberian enclave in the north west of England and it is unlikely his departure would be without wider ramifications. In conversation with Fernando Torres last season, the only time his commitment wavered was when he discussed the possibility of Liverpool without Benitez (this was before the manager signed his new contract). 'If Rafa left I don't know if it would change how I felt,' he said. 'He is a very important manager, and not just for me. He has brought a lot of players here and put his confidence in them. If he goes, there could be five or six looking at their future.' No bad thing in some cases but, short-term, a strong Liverpool without Torres is unthinkable. There are all kinds of futures tied to the game in Lyon tonight. The last time Liverpool were threatened with an early exit from the Champions League was two years ago and Besiktas were the opponents. Going into the game with one point from three matches, Liverpool were in an even more precarious position than now, bottom of their group and with the last match scheduled for Marseille, where no English team had ever won. Nobody could have predicted what followed. Liverpool beat Besiktas 8-0, a record for the Champions League group stage, then won 4-1 against Porto, and ended with a flourish, defeating Marseilles 4-0 in the Stade Velodrome, the French side's heaviest loss at home in Europe. This was still only enough for Liverpool to qualify in second place but they were the top scorers in the 32-team group stage by a margin of four goals and were immediately installed as the opponents to avoid in the knock-out round, a reputation swiftly confirmed with the elimination of Inter Milan, champions of Italy. Kings of Lyon: Liverpool midfielder Javier Mascherano tackles Ederson of Lyon during the French side's 2-1 win at Anfield They were very much contenders that year which, as Benitez identified, is as good as can be expected these days. What came across as a self-servingly low expectation was in reality a simple truth. Football is subject to the vagaries of team-building, plus random outside influences such as injury and the decisions of referees, so nothing comes guaranteed. All that can be demanded of a coach is that he consistently places his team in a position to win tournaments. Benitez does that. In the season Liverpool almost went out in the Champions League group stage, they eventually lost to Chelsea in the semi-finals in extra time. The year previously they lost to AC Milan in the final. Last season, they were still in contention for the Barclays Premier League title going into May. None of these escapades ended in success, but all were good reasons to presume Benitez was on the right road. The flipside to the coin is what Benitez is experiencing now. After inconsistent Premier League form, defeat in Lyon would be perceived as failure to contend in the major competitions this season and the scrutiny would be harsh and retrospective.   More from Martin Samuel... MARTIN SAMUEL: A cracking scrap but where was the class?25/10/09 MARTIN SAMUEL: Barbaric Old Firm bigotry is last thing we need down here25/10/09 MARTIN SAMUEL: Dean Martin and a fitting send-off for my Uncle Sid22/10/09 MARTIN SAMUEL: The ghost of Guus Hiddink will haunt Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea20/10/09 MARTIN SAMUEL: From dire straits to king of the hill for miracle man Brawn19/10/09 Martin Samuel: Button is champion and all doubts fade in a victory for the driver19/10/09 MARTIN SAMUEL: Targeting Diego Tardelli has to be a step up for Manchester City on Robinho18/10/09 The numbers all add up for Jenson Button, the accountant16/10/09 VIEW FULL ARCHIVE It would be asked not just where is Benitez going now, but where has he been going for severalyears? True, there has been a steady, if gradual, improvementdomestically but a lone championship challenge aside, the argument thatLiverpool are en route to inevitable glory is largely based aroundresults in Europe. Despite its grand title, the Champions League is acup and the majority of its participants face English opposition as underdogs. Few teams have the financial clout of the Premier League elite. Liverpool's squad includes players bought from Atletico Madrid, Zenit St Petersburg, Villarreal, Valencia and Roma, who have all recently competed in the Champions League. Even when Liverpool are not favoured, they often beat the odds because Benitez is a master at preparation for a big one-off game and has a talent for inspiring a stunning victory over Real Madrid or Manchester United. It is the disposal of Fulham at Craven Cottage and the real test of intensively successful league football over a season that has eluded him in England. The strongest argument against Benitez is that Liverpool are what they were at the end of his first season: a quite brilliant cup team, without the wit or consistency to win a championship. Yet while Benitez keeps Liverpool in contention, he maintains his position as the man most likely to bring success. Were his team to exit the Champions League before the knock-out stage, however, questions would be asked not just about Liverpool's present, but the recent past. Is the club that much nearer the summit of English football? Is the strength of the squad reflective of five years' work? What have been the real achievements since winning the FA Cup in 2006? Has the thrill of European football distracted from some pretty erratic decision-making? Lyon are a good team with a lot of European experience, but Liverpoolshould win tonight. It is 42 years since an English team lost in Lyon Tottenham Hotspur went down 1-0 in the second round of the European Cup-Winners' Cup in season 1967-68 and Liverpool have won their last four matches on French soil, against Marseille twice, Toulouse and Bordeaux. Indeed, it could be argued that Liverpool's task in qualifying is not so different or so much harder than when backed into a corner two years ago before scoring 16 goals in three matches. Fiorentina have won only five of 11 Serie A games this season, while Debrecen of Hungary, who are next up, have leaked an average of three goals per game in the Champions League group stage. What has changed is the absolute conviction in Liverpool's power to contend. Nobody is expecting the emphatic statements of two years ago, but even faith in Benitez's ability to pinch a 1-0 win on the counterattack is being tested, and that is new territory. The difficulty for Liverpool, and for all clubs with a manager whose personality defines the team, is that succession is no easy matter. 1967: THE LAST TIME AN ENGLISH CLUB LOST IN LYON History lesson: Pat Jennings, Terry Venables and Joe Kinnear can't stop Lyon's Mohamed Boussa scoring in Spurs' 4-3 first-leg win at White Hart Lane. But the French side won 1-0 at home to knock Spurs out of the European Cup-Winners' Cup on the away goals rule Liverpool have Kenny Dalglish on hand, and to the supporters who still sing his name he would be a popular choice, but could Dalglish get more from this present Liverpool side than Benitez? It is doubtful. For a club of sizeable ambition, Liverpool have a weak squad. That may be Benitez's fault after five years of furious transfer activity, but the owners do not have the funds to solve the problem, so any successor inherits a built-in flaw. What must also be conceded is that while this is not the perfect group, they are Benitez's group and he is most likely to get the best out of them because they respect him as a coach (even if, as a man, the coldness is often mutual). It is not as if Emiliano Insua suddenly becomes a superlative full-back when he returns to play for Argentina under Diego Maradona, or there is a hidden depth to Martin Skrtel with Slovakia that Benitez is failing to uncover. These are good but limited players and when Benitez lays them out in such a way that Manchester United or Inter Milan are made to look second best, it represents a technical achievement that would elude most coaches. If Benitez left this minute, the manager following him would not want to be stuck with this squad for long and would no doubt take the set of shears to it that Benitez did to the playing staff left behind by Gerard Houllier. All of which makes this a compelling game for Liverpool in Lyon; one that demands and will no doubt generate sweeping conclusions, but does not advance easy answers. Lose, and Benitez can no longer claim to be fulfilling the basic requirement of an elite-four manager: that his team contests the biggest prizes. Yet who out there could do better? Win and what really changes? Is beating Lyon success? Is it achievement? Or will Liverpool merely shift back into the comfortable position they have occupied under for several years now: in the mix, on the brink, just about to, almost there. And still waiting for the great leap forward.  Why big clubs go for potty PlatiniYet more nonsense from Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, whose ruinous plan for the financial regulation of football is now gathering pace. The big clubs are suddenly on his side because they have spotted that limiting club spending according to turnover will cement their positions of superiority, and in his latest address Platini has risibly linked his scheme with the birth of the European Cup itself. Bright idea? Michel Platini 'Looking back can be a good way of making sure that the path mapped out at the beginning has not been strayed from too much, and of re-establishing priorities if necessary,' he tells a UEFA publication. 'European club competitions were born out of the enthusiasm of a small group of football lovers who were motivated by a legitimate wish to know which was the best club in Europe.' He goes on to attach his idea of financial fair play - which will ensure Manchester United always have more money to spend than every other club in England - to this pioneer spirit. So how did this new competition work out for clubs across Europe? Not so good, in the beginning. The first five European Cup competitions were won by Real Madrid, making them the biggest, richest club in the world. Benfica then won it in 1961 and retained it in 1962, Inter Milan won it in 1964 and again in 1965. This pattern continued (Ajax, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and AC Milan all retained the trophy at various times) until the Champions League was formed in 1992, since when the increased standard of the competitors and the influence of the free market have led to a different champion every year, starting with Barcelona. Had Platini's rules been in place from the start it would have been impossible for any team, domestically or internationally, to overtake Real Madrid or their satellite of wealthy rivals. The established European order would not have changed in half a century. Yes, the disproportionate wealth of Champions League regulars remains a problem within domestic competitions - one that Platini's scheme will make worse, rather than resolve - but the upside has been two decades of enthralling European competition, more open than at any point in history. Platini will soon change that, though, taking us back to those pioneering good old days when we were free to discover who was the best, the biggest and the richest team in Europe, providing the answer to those questions was Real Madrid. CONTACT MARTIN AT: m.samuel@dailymail.co.uk  Explore more:People:Martin Samuel, Rafa Benitez, Javier Mascherano, FERNANDO TORRES, Martin Skrtel, Rafael Benitez, Kenny DalglishPlaces:Liverpool, Lyon, Barcelona, Argentina, United Kingdom, Italy, Hungary, Europe


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