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Benitez’ Job Continues To Survive Off European Success

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This time, COS reader Ryan details Liverpool’s critic/media/pundit/comedian silencing win over Barcelona.

A truly monumental result that won’t just stand the test of time, augur encouragingly for the rest of once-ridiculed season, but is now certain to extend Rafa Benitez’s helm as manager. 4 months ago the talk was of how long the success of Istanbul ’05 had granted him, tonight’s result endows another year onto his stay regardless of where and how we finish the 07/08 season. Whether Benitez truly can take us to the ‘next level’ in domestic competition is still very much in the lap of the Gods, what can’t be argued though is his indefatigability in European competition. Make no mistake, tonight’s result was massive. It furthered exemplified his ‘comfortability’ on the European stage, that he can negate Barcelona’s myriad of talent on the pitch, completely outwit Rijkaard, his Barcelona compatriot off it, all doing so 10 days after being baffled by Glenn fucking Roeder at St James Park.

Rubbish and inferior at home, yet masterful and all-conquering every year in Europe, this Liverpool team is Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest. Tellingly though, it takes a flight out of England, for us to turn into a ‘team’. The complete over-reliance on our better players to pull us out of holes in the Premier League, is met by a solid, unified, team ethic when faced with adversity in the Champions League. It wasn’t individuals, defending, or Steven Gerrard that beat Barcelona tonight, but a disciplined, well-set-out unit that frustrated the current European Champions and left us all wondering why it couldn’t be like this so often. And baffled as to how such team bonding can stem from the previous week’s disruptions on the Algarve.

We’re a better team when we’re led by Jamie Carragher than Steven Gerrard. Steven Gerrard’s the best player we’ve got by some distance, but heroic team performances like tonight’s, Chelsea home and away in ’05, and Juventus in Turin are as a result of Carra drawing a line in the sand from minute 1; Thou shalt not pass. He was superb again tonight. He’s been fucking shit at times this season, but seems to relish the opportunity to portray the art of defending more than anybody I care to remember in a Liverpool back four. His flailing challenges, last ditch tackles, and barnstorming runs and interceptions seemed anathema to the grace and aesthetic of football usually reserved for Camp Nou, but it mustn’t have escaped Rijkaard’s notice that his team were thwarted, not by baffling tactics, but by a stirring team resolve, embodied by Carragher’s obduracy from the kick-off.

Other players, conspicuous by their absence when needed this season, gave outstanding performances. Finnan, out of position, Alonso resolute in midfield, Arebloa the untried right-back at left-back, the tireless work of Kuyt in the hole, and most notably, Momo Sissoko. 2 games back after being kept out for 4 months, and he was the best midfielder on the pitch. Sometimes you don’t need to point, shout, or drag teams forward, you just need to accept that the team you’re facing are technically better than you, and you must do whatever it takes to frustrate and contain them. Which is exactly what Sissoko did. He was everywhere, in the faces of Barca’s ever changing midfielders, snapping into tackles, intercepting, and distributing. Winning vital free-kicks, relieving the pressure on the tiring back four, and (for once) bringing others into play. He has his bad games, tonight he was immense. Only a fool wouldn’t concede his value to us after performances like that.

So, what now? A precarious lead that can leave us caught between a rock and a hard place. Do we go at them from minute one at Anfield, or sit back and attempt to contain their at-times wonderful array of attacking talent? Eto’o will undoubtedly be back, Messi will be sharper, and Ronaldinho won’t want to miss the chance to whore himself across the European stage for another 2/3 months. How will our players react to the possibility of not having to ‘go for it’? Especially the ones sitting helplessly on a booking? Can Momo Sissoko hold back from a tackle, knowing that one mistimed lunge could result in him missing his first ever Champions League Quarter Final? Can Arebloa continue to impress? Has Rijkaard got one final trick up his sleeve, in this possibly, his last season as Barcelona coach?

Too many questions, and too much to worry about. Let’s just savour the moment right now, and a famous result. Doubtless come two weeks time, we’ll be back on edge. Yet safe in the knowledge, that in European Competition, Benitez knows what he’s at.