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Feb 26, 2009

Unhappy marriage can deliver success

There are occasions when supposedly random draws feel much more than mere coincidence. One such occurred this week as Rafa Benitez returned to the Bernabeu Stadium. His past centred upon Real Madrid and his future may well do. This is a club with a temporary manager and one where, whenever a vacancy arises - generally on an annual basis - Benitez's name figures prominently in the speculation. Yet while he rejects offers of extended contracts, Real's most high-profile supporter among the coaching fraternity languishes in exile across the water. Thus far, his triumphant homecoming was merely temporary, Liverpool's 1-0 win in Spain providing his former employers with a reminder of Benitez's considerable credentials.

While rumours of his departure were belatedly rebuffed, Real's ongoing interest is merely one reason why Liverpool should accede to his demands and submit a contract he will sign. There are others, but the club's decision makers should ask themselves one question: where would they be without him? The facetious answer, and one which some of Benitez's more vocal critics might submit, could be "top of the Premier League." The reality could be rather less enticing.

Consider the background. It is one that, despite the undoubted allure of a great club, may deter a prospective manager.

Their feuding owners hardly constitute the ideal board, marrying interference and ignorance. The man they considered to replace Benitez 15 months ago, Jurgen Klinsmann, was an American resident who could speak a language Tom Hicks and George Gillett understand. There is nothing wrong with that but, given the differences between the vocabularies used on either side of the Atlantic, such candidates are few and far between.

Lacking a background in football, any appointment would surely depend upon the advice the owners received and, for that, Gillett has tended to turn to Liverpool's chief executive. And given Rick Parry's blemished record of recruitment, it is unlikely they would end up with their first choice anyway; as Benitez can testify, it is best to have a Plan B, C, D and E when Parry is in charge of negotiations.

Moreover, any new manager would discover that Liverpool do not have a budget commensurate with their status among the world's biggest clubs. The £350 million refinancing loan taken out following Hicks and Gillett's purchase needs to be renegotiated by the end of July. The new Anfield has still not been started, let alone completed. It scarcely suggests a sizeable fund for transfers. There might, of course, be a billionaire benefactor, but then none purchased the club when the global economic climate was considerably healthier.

This is no one-eyed apology for Benitez. It can be both an asset and a foible that he has turned stubbornness into an art form, and, as Robbie Keane can testify, his obstinacy can hamper Liverpool. Hindered by Parry, his is a mixed record in the transfer market. Though some of what appear his stranger team selections can prove the more inspired, Benitez is both dogmatic and idiosyncratic in his methods. His recent attack upon Sir Alex Ferguson appeared ill-judged; whatever the accuracy of his supposed facts, Liverpool's subsequent results have contributed to Manchester United's dominance of the division.

Yet he is also a defensive strategist and an organiser of the highest calibre, capable of tactical mastery in the biggest games and, despite the obvious appeal of Real Madrid, harbouring a genuine wish to stay.

Importantly, given Liverpool's limited resources, it is very much his squad and while it lacks depth, he has introduced brought some blue-chip players to the red half of Merseyside. Happily settled on the Wirral himself, Benitez merits some of the credit for imbuing in Liverpool's Spanish contingent an affection for the club and city that goes beyond that many imports display. Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and Jose Reina might not regard a change at the helm as the precursor to a change of club. The presumption is that Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher would stay, regardless of the manager.

Nevertheless, the danger is that alienating Benitez would result in the break-up of Liverpool's strongest starting 11 for almost two decades. It would, in part, create the impression of a club in decline. Daniel Agger is already courted by AC Milan. Torres and Javier Mascherano, if they wished, could entice offers. Liverpool do not have the economic muscle of Manchester City, so their chances reside mainly with the players already at their disposal.

Perversely, too, the continued underachievement of Andrea Dossena and Lucas Leiva presents a case for keeping Benitez; he signed them so, if anyone can make them resemble Liverpool players, it should be him. If the frustrating Ryan Babel is to realise his considerable potential, it may well be under Benitez's tutelage.

The same applies to some younger players. Benitez has populated Liverpool's junior sides with his fellow Spaniards. It may be an attempt to emulate Arsene Wenger, but it is the kind of long-term project Real Madrid rarely manage to complete and the sort of scheme that could compensate for a shortage of funds. Daniel Pacheco, perhaps the most gifted, may be ready to be integrated into the senior side next season.

That marks the final year of Benitez's current deal. If the level of his power is an issue, it is hard to identify anyone else at Anfield - albeit by default - who would exert it better. There are times when Liverpool are dangerously close to being a club in chaos. It is only results that prevent that and, in his own way, Benitez, unlike Hicks, Gillett and Parry, has produced plenty. While the title remains elusive, it is far from inconceivable that Liverpool's season will conclude with a third Champions League final of his tenure.

Despite that, Liverpool have felt in limbo for 15 months, but the impasse needs to be ended soon. While Real Madrid are unlikely to grant Benitez the level of control he wants, or persevere with a manager for five seasons that do not yield a league title, Liverpool need their manager rather more than he needs them.

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