Many A Slip
Has last night’s result finally put to bed the idea the Rafael Benitez is the master tactician with a near monopoly on the know-how required to win the European Cup? I very much doubt it, and I am ready for the same old clichés to be trotted out next season when Liverpool begin their next Champions League campaign.
Now I’m not really having a pop at Benitez here – although I confess that I’m not a fan of the man – rather having a dig at that brand of lazy journalism that has built up his reputation for the sake of having anything better to do. I didn’t watch the match last night but I did see the first leg on ITV when the increasingly dreadful Clive Tyldesley turned the hyperbole up to eleven. Up until the last minute of that match – as with the tie against Arsenal a few weeks before – it was all about how Rafa seemingly has this gift, this supernatural endowment that can’t help but keep dragging him towards his destiny, and yet another cup final. The newspapers diligently parrot the same line, comparing Liverpool’s oft-stuttering league form with their continued progress in Europe. Why the disparity between Liverpool’s performances in the two competitions? The real answer – a bit of luck here and there – doesn’t make good copy, nor does it fill airtime or column inches, and so this myth, this ill-thought out narrative without any real supporting evidence, of Rafa the genius and his unique understanding of how to win such vital matches, has taken hold.
The truth, I feel, is more mundane. It would be hard to dispute the fact that the Premier League is currently the best league in Europe; a quick glance at the teams involved in the Champions League semi-finals for the past couple of years seems good evidence of this. Liverpool, as one of said league’s representatives, seem to me more likely to do well just by dint of playing in that very league. They are a decent side no doubt, but it isn’t so much that they have failed to perform in the league whilst raising their game in Europe, rather that as they are the fourth best team in the Premier League, which is the top league competition in Europe, they are therefore one of the favourites to progress in the Champions League, which they have duly done.
Think about it; just how could Rafa be so supremely talented that he knows exactly how to get Liverpool to win away to Inter Milan yet he is somehow unable to figure out how to beat Wigan at home? It doesn’t make any sense; the rules of the game and the preparation required are the same. One attempt at an explanation is that Rafa and Liverpool are more motivated for cup matches, more prepared for the do-or-die nature of knockout competitions; but if Benitez does have the surgical skill to prepare for an individual cup game but lacks the broad brush ability required to play week-in-week-out in the league, how come Liverpool were bundled out of the FA Cup by a struggling Championship side? And just how can you identify one particular team as being especially suited to winning cups anyway? Were Manchester United considered good at knockout competitions when they won the treble? Were Liverpool thought of the same way during the ‘eighties when they pretty much owned the Milk Cup on a permanent basis? Or in both of these cases are we not simply dealing with two very good teams, and for very good teams don’t those cups just come with the territory?
The thing is we have been here before. Liverpool under Gerard Houllier were pretty much the same as Liverpool under Benitez; a good side for sure, good enough to do well in the premiership without really challenging for the title, and good enough, with the necessary dash of luck, to win a cup or three. And a decade or so earlier I remember Manchester United fans continually explaining away their latest league defeat and perennial ability to finish fourth in the Football League as being down to the fact that they were a “good cup side”. Well fine, it’s a good excuse, but let’s tell it like it really is; when we describe a team as being a “good cup side”, all we are really saying is that they are “not quite good enough to win the league”. And that epithet applies equally well to the current Liverpool team and their manager.