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Dec 8, 2011

Where Benitez belongs

The website and the business card serve as a cheap form of advertising. They are part of the tools of the trade for the sole traders and small businesses everywhere. There is nothing unusual in millions of people having them. But football is a different line of work. Even natural self-publicists like Jose Mourinho don't take such a step; men as suspicious of outsiders as Sir Alex Ferguson certainly wouldn't.

So there is something very strange about a Champions League-winning manager having both. Perhaps Rafa Benitez believes he has drifted so far off the radar that both are necessary reminders of his existence. Perhaps it is a sign that he is a man apart.

Because, at a time when Spanish football has provided the dominant philosophy in the global game, Spain's most successful managerial export suddenly appears out of time. Tiki-taka, the short passing game espoused by Barcelona and adopted by the national team, is a very different ethos to Benitez's meticulously-planned counter-attacking. Total football and a tactical, chess-like approach are contrasting policies.

Five seasons ago, Benitez's Liverpool overcame Barcelona, albeit a less fearsome side than the current collective. Now Pep Guardiola, Xavi and co appear to have won the argument. They are eulogised, Benitez exiled, albeit by choice, in the Wirral.

His star has waned. The 18-month period from the middle of 2009 from the end of 2010 was financially lucrative - he received large pay-offs from first Liverpool and then Inter Milan - but came at a cost to his reputation.

Yet the reports that surfaced of Paris Saint-Germain's interest should be welcomed. Benitez is seen as a divisive figure, certainly in England and, to a lesser extent, in Italy, but his achievements should not be obscured. In these days of the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona, it is staggering that another manager won La Liga twice in three seasons with another club (Valencia in his case), and lifted a European trophy as well. The Liverpool side of 2005 rank among the most improbable European champions of all and, while both luck and individual inspiration were factors, so was managerial nous.

The team of 2009 ranked as the most accomplished Anfield has seen in the last two decades and, while Benitez's record in the transfer record is undeniably mixed, the recent accolades for the unfortunate Lucas Leiva show that his successes were not limited to Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres.

It is by the by but, while Benitez's man-management is often described as cold, no-one imbued Torres with more confidence or devised a system that suited his fellow Spaniard quite so well. That others, including Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Luis Garcia and Yossi Benayoun, produced the best form of their careers under Benitez is at least partly attributable to the 51-year-old. It has been fashionable to mock him but few poor managers are courted four times by Real Madrid.

So there are reasons for PSG to appoint Benitez should they dispense with Antoine Kombouare. There are also aspects of his make up that would render him an intriguing appointment. His first priority ought to be to avoid club politics. As an active participant in boardroom squabbles at Anfield and, before too long, a vocal critic of owner Massimo Moratti at Inter, he should, to borrow a phrase he once used sarcastically, concentrate on training and coaching the team in his next job.

Another imperative is to buy well. With their Qatari backers, money is no object in the French capital. It should make a welcome change after Inter - where Moratti only spent after sacking Benitez - and Anfield, where all too often the club, Rick Parry in particular, failed to secure his major targets. As they included David Villa, David Silva, Daniel Alves and Nemanja Vidic, it is tempting to imagine the side he might have had.

Apart from the difficulty of luring world-class talents to France, Paris Saint-Germain offer the chance to assemble the team he wants. Yet the status of a league's sole financial powerhouse will bring expectations not merely of winning but also of Champagne football. It may be a salient point that the Valencia team of 2001-02 only scored 51 league goals; lacking a world-class striker and without a sizeable budget, however, they still won the title, a sign of Benitez's resourcefulness.

Ligue 1 is all too familiar with low-scoring matches. For Benitez, the inherent defensiveness of some French sides presents a problem: how do you counter-attack teams who never commit players forward?

Yet, as Liverpool's class of 2009 indicate, Benitez is not inherently negative. He has a fondness for keeping six outfield players behind the ball and assesses the risk factor in being more progressive but, like Roberto Mancini now, he can be a calculated attacker.

However, it is a feature of his managerial career that he has sometimes prospered as an underdog and stumbled as a favourite. Few, if any, other managers have eliminated Real, Barcelona, Inter, AC Milan and Juventus from the Champions League yet home draws with lesser opponents, rather than the infamous "Rafa's rant", cost Liverpool the title in 2009.

Benitez's fortunes have declined since then but one of the game's strategists should not be consigned to the past. Should Paris Saint-Germain pick him, it would be an intriguing and, potentially, an inspired appointment. The business cards should be binned and the website closed, because, while his idiosyncratic approach impresses some and irritates others, Benitez belongs on the managerial frontline.

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