Heart Of Football

Back 'at home' with Magpies but Benitez still hard to please

Players, not managers, win or lose football matches. Yet on any level you care to assess it, Newcastle v Liverpool depends massively on one man, Rafa Benitez.

His head is with Newcastle. A major part of his heart remains Liverpool red.

How can it be otherwise?

Rafa, like most managers, is a nomad. He is one of those men, like Brian Clough, driven to boss teams after his own playing career was cut short by injury.

With a university degree in physical education, and a personality that could be charming on the surface but confrontational underneath it, he guides, goads, cajoles and seeks to control players in his charge. He encourages the weak and bullies the strong. Oh, and he confronts the club paymasters.

Liverpool, in 2005, was his proudest moment. In that astonishing Champions League final in Istanbul, the Reds came from three goals down at half-time against the best team in AC Milan's history to win the trophy on penalty kicks after it ended 3-3.

Steven Gerrard was the inspiration on the field and, l repeat, players win matches.

Besides being a hard taskmaster, Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez is noted for his confrontations with club owners and rival coaches.PHOTO: REUTERS

But Gerrard looks back on his years under Rafa as a time when trying to win praise from Benitez was like trying to get blood out of stone. The manager needled his captain even, as Gerrard now realises particularly, at times of heightened success.

Put yourself in Benitez's position today. He is manager, chief coach, master of all he surveys around St James' Park, except for the man with the purse strings.

Twice in a turbulent relationship with the owner Mike Ashley, Benitez has publicly stated that the proprietor broke promises required to rebuild the side. He had stayed at Newcastle despite the club going down a division two seasons ago, because the fans there are the best he has found in a career spanning Spain, England and Italy.

Even Liverpool, with their changing ownership and eventually with Americans in the boardroom, would not tolerate Rafa's blunt demands for more, more, more to grow the team. 

Better than his native Madrid? Better than Anfield? Better than Naples or Milan or Chelsea?

How can we quantify such a statement? The Real Madrid that Benitez hoped to play for and coached both at youth level and then briefly the first team, never afforded him time to assert himself.

No club, other than Liverpool, did he. Even Liverpool, with their changing ownership and eventually with Americans in the boardroom, would not tolerate Rafa's blunt demands for more, more, more to grow the team.

He won four trophies there in six seasons. That was by far the longest he has taken root in any place, and even when he left on a whistle-stop managerial tour of Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli, Real and Newcastle, his "girls" remained on Merseyside.

His wife stayed where her circle of friends, and their two daughters' schooling, was settled. "My family lives in Liverpool," he said at a Newcastle press conference on Friday, "so it's my home.

"I am feeling at home here, but the family is there. I have a lot of positive relationships with the fans, good memories. It will be emotional, but at the same time, we will try to win for Newcastle."

Spoken like a football manager. His prime was with Liverpool, his commitment is to Newcastle. He is friendly with Jurgen Klopp, the current Liverpool manager (and just ask Jose Mourinho whether it is easy to maintain friendly or even respectful relationships when Benitez is in the opposite dugout).

Naturally, the media ask Benitez all the time if he would go back to Anfield. "I didn't get too many chances to go back," he responds, with a grin disguising whatever true feelings lie behind that.

"But in football, you never know. I am getting older, but for a manager, still a young manager."

He is 57. Bob Paisley was 64 when he last managed Liverpool to the title in England. Bobby Robson was 68 when he was knighted, and still managing his beloved Newcastle despite suffering cancer.

The career of a manager can indeed be stressful. Benitez had three operations to remove kidney stones during his time on the Liverpool bench, and just last month was sidelined after an infection following hernia surgery.

You can just imagine the hotline from his hospital bed to the touchline where Newcastle played, and won, at Swansea. The winning goal was headed by Jamaal Lascelles, the defender whom Benitez made captain after his first choice Jonjo Shelvey let the team down, by getting banned for an ill-tempered stamp on Tottenham's Dele Alli during their home loss.

Shelvey's indiscipline cost him, and, while he remains a talent that Newcastle that need in midfield, Benitez has yet to forgive him and restore him.

The manager has thin resources compared to the Reds. He doesn't know if he can trust Shelvey, who signed for Liverpool just before he left in 2010, and the same goes for Aleksandar Mitrovic. The latter is by far his most potent striker, but Mitrovic is a Serb flawed by a fighting mentality that, like Shelvey, sees red too often.

Yet look on the other side tonight. It doesn't take a coaching mastermind to see the imbalance at St James' Park.

Liverpool have Coutinho (who started his European career at Inter while Benitez was the head coach). They have Coutinho's fellow Brazilian Roberto Firmino, the Egyptian Mohamed Salah, and the Senegal sprinter Sadio Mane all in attack.

As the world knows, Liverpool are exposed by their defence. "I talk about the short blanket," Benitez said on Friday. "If you cover your head, your feet are cold. Cover your feet, and the head is cold."

It's an old saying. I first came across it when Joao Saldanha, the coach to Pele, Garrincha and Gerson 50 years ago, used it to describe his belief that he should play as many forwards as Brazil were blessed with, and risk the defence. And I got the impression from Saldanha that he was only borrowing the blanket description from previous managers.

Benitez is compromised. He knows that Newcastle have fewer attacking talents than Liverpool can put on the bench. He uses the short-blanket line to explain that his, and Newcastle's best chance is to be cagey.

He will hope Liverpool commit so much going forward that they can be caught cold on the counter attack. If that happens, Benitez will try not to punch the air too exuberantly. His family are adopted Liverpudlians.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline 'Back 'at home' with Magpies but Benitez still hard to please'. Print Edition | Subscribe