Champions League fairytales and unhelpful distractions – Rafa’s Liverpool tenure

Nostalgia writer JAMES NOBLE looks back at Rafa Benítez’s time as Liverpool manager, from the soaring highs to the deep, dark lows and the disappointing final note.

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After six eventful seasons on Merseyside – which produced one Champions League, one UEFA Super Cup, one FA Cup and one Community Shield – Rafa Benítez left Anfield by mutual consent on June 3, 2010. And he has remained a highly popular figure since.

The Spaniard, so often, feels such a fascinating figure – within the context of Liverpool FC and beyond.

This is someone who, sometimes subtly, could gauge the mood perfectly. Not always – the notorious “facts” rant of January 2009 can vouch for that – but regularly enough within his 350 games at the club, he came across as a thoroughly shrewd operator, especially on the additionally intricate continental stage.

He knew when being “cold”, in the words of Steven Gerrard, could push extra percentages out of a player, especially one as integral as the former skipper.

He knew when a stadium’s atmosphere was there to be maximised, there to attack within.


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He also, more broadly, most certainly knew how to execute a game plan. He was prominent in an era when top level football, it could be said, felt particularly chess-like.

There were several cautious, tightly-structured contests against the likes of José Mourinho’s Chelsea. Which takes us, quite nicely, into that famous first season and the triumphant 2004/05 Champions League campaign.

This was a Liverpool team that would finish fifth in that term’s Premiership, but one that proved itself more than capable of producing brilliant moments, astoundingly intense, effective spells within games, and highly astute displays over two legs.

This was Benítez building brilliantly on the Champions League place that Gérard Houllier had earned in his final season in charge, while also adapting to some of the more disjointed elements that had troubled the Frenchman’s final couple of years at the helm.

The likes of Luis García and Xabi Alonso were brought in but, understandably, this was a squad that felt very much in transition. Simultaneously, Benítez also made it a squad that could – consequently – spring surprises and produce all sorts of attributes and all sorts of displays.

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Florent Sinama Pongolle, for instance, was brought off the bench by the manager to kick-off the second-half fightback against Olympiacos in the December 2004 Champions League group stage decider. He struck less than a minute after the restart and – within one of those aforementioned spells – Neil Mellor and Steven Gerrard added the decisive second and third in the closing minutes.

The Bayer Leverkusen last 16 and Juventus quarter-final first legs represented further examples of Anfield’s intensity being optimised for periods of matches. That Juve second leg, meanwhile, was managed brilliantly. 2-1 up from the first game, the injury-hit Reds travelled to Turin and navigated their way to a 0-0 draw that saw them through.

The 0-0 at champions-elect Chelsea in the semi-final first leg could be put into a similar shrewd category, before Liverpool again used the bounce of an electric Anfield to fly out of the blocks and earn that decisive García goal in the early moments of the second leg.

Where to start with the final. Istanbul on Wednesday, May 25, 2005, was probably an occasion when – against an immensely strong AC Milan outfit – Benítez’s tactics weren’t on-point to begin with.

But, 3-0 down, the back-three he switched to at half-time and the introduction of Dietmar Hamann most certainly was. The pay-off of three goals within 15 minutes of the restart reflected the fact that this was a manager as adept at adapting intelligently as he was at preparing effectively. It also reflected the fact that this was a team seemingly capable of patchy, but enthralling, brilliance.

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What an achievement that remains. Depending on who you ask, the brilliance of the club’s fifth European Cup success is as wonderful as the quirky unpredictability of it.

2005/06 ended with another thrilling final victory via penalties following a 3-3 draw, as Liverpool edged West Ham United to claim the FA Cup. Alongside the Super Cup victory in Monaco in August – achieved after a 3-1 extra-time win over CSKA Moscow – it was a season where the Reds became a notably more consistent, rounded outfit. 82 points and third place in the league demonstrated that.

The FA Cup triumph offered further evidence, but also pointed to the brilliant one-off performances and moments that the Reds could provide. The 2-1 Old Trafford semi-final victory over Chelsea – who were, by then, on the way to a second consecutive league title – was a prime example.

Goalkeeper Pepe Reina, midfield dynamo Momo Sissoko and striker Peter Crouch all proved valuable additions from the summer of 2005 and helped give the squad a more coherent look. In January 2006, meanwhile, there was also the hugely popular return of Robbie Fowler. Young Danish centre-back Daniel Agger would also prove an excellent long-term signing.

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2006/07 started with a 2-1 Community Shield victory over Chelsea and ended with another Champions League final against Milan. This one brought defeat, though, as the Italians triumphed 2-1 in Athens. Third place in the Premiership was maintained, however, and overcoming the likes of Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven and Chelsea on the way to the continental showpiece was another marker of Benítez’s excellence.

Dirk Kuyt – who scored the Reds’ goal in Athens – would also prove another excellent long-term addition, while midfield enforcer Javier Mascherano joined in January, firstly on loan.

Before 2006/07 was up, new owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett had taken over. The Americans’ time at the helm would soon turn worryingly messy but, to begin with, there were elements of promise. Fernando Torres was signed in the summer of 2007, alongside the likes of Yossi Benayoun, Ryan Babel, Lucas Leiva and Andriy Voronin. There was widespread optimism – and hopes of a potential title tilt – given the Reds now possessed additional depth.

Torres more than lived up to the billing. The Spanish striker struck 33 goals in all competitions in a stunning 2007/08. He led the line brilliantly in a side that increasingly saw Alonso and Mascherano sit in front of the back four, with Gerrard operating as a Number 10 behind the ex-Atlético Madrid man in a 4-2-3-1 shape.

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The Reds may have finished fourth this time around but that team, Torres’ breathtaking debut season and a run to the Champions League semi-finals, offered plenty of reason for optimism.

Benítez’s Liverpool probably peaked in 2008/09. 86 points – the club’s best Premier League tally prior to 2018/19 and 2019/20 – and just two defeats across the league campaign say a lot for the level of the team that finished second, just four points behind champions Manchester United.

It should, in truth, have been more. 11 draws across the season – seven of them at Anfield – were what proved costly. Benítez’s “facts” rant about United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, in January of that season, was also seen as an unhelpful distraction and came within a poor run or form for Liverpool in early 2009.

The 4-1 victory at Old Trafford in March – which came just four days after a 4-0 home Champions League victory over Real Madrid – showed just what this team was capable of, though. Despite being highly impressive, 2008/09 was ultimately a campaign that the Reds would end trophyless.

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In 2009/10, Benítez’s final season in charge, things then began to go more obviously downhill. The classy Alonso left to join Real Madrid in the summer of 2009 and was a big miss. That wasn’t helped by the fact that Alberto Aquilani – widely seen as the Spanish midfielder’s replacement – never truly got going, largely as a result of persistent injury issues.

Liverpool lost two of their first four league games, exited the Champions League at the group stage and finished the Premier League season in seventh. There had been relative optimism that another title charge could be on the way at the start of the campaign but, instead, a sizeable drop-off followed.

Meanwhile, things off the field were also spiralling. Hicks and Gillett’s relationship had broken down and the club’s finances were looking increasingly unhealthy.

There was, at least, an entertaining run to the semi-finals of the newly-named Europa League in the spring of 2010. Unirea Urziceni, Lille and Benfica were beaten in the knockout rounds before an agonising semi-final defeat to Atlético Madrid denied the Reds a meeting with Fulham and, as it turned out, their next manager – Roy Hodgson – in the Hamburg final.

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It was a disappointing note for Benítez’s reign to end on, given the wonderful highs he had led the club to, particularly in his first couple of seasons. The ownership issues meant his hands were at least partially tied in his last three seasons at the club, though.

What important bookmarks Istanbul 2005 and that thrilling 2006 FA Cup triumph remain in the club’s history, nonetheless.

Rafael Benítez was someone whose ability to adapt, to regularly strike the right tone – whether that be in relation to on-field tactics or in his appreciation of the club’s supporters – meant so many exceptional moments and achievements were produced by his time in charge. Someone who, probably, could have achieved so much more in different circumstances.

That he and his achievements are still remembered with such warmth is a measure of both the manager and the man.


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