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Thursday, June 3, 2010
An inevitable departure after diminishing returns

Richard Jolly

It was an undignified conclusion, as it always is when someone is ushered out of the back door. Yet it was also somehow typical of the last 12 months for both Rafa Benitez and Liverpool that neither's exit strategy from an increasingly disharmonious relationship worked: not for the club, who ended up paying compensation, or for the manager, who could have gone with more of a swagger had he been enticed to a club of a similar stature. But it is more fitting that even now he has gone he remains, as he has long been, a man who polarises opinion. For the believers in the Rafalution, whose numbers have ever more depleted, he is still exempt from the blame. For his more vituperative critics, some of whom rarely venture near Liverpool, he is the source of the club's ills. Students of the regime of Tom Hicks and George Gillett tend to be aware that sacking him is no one-stop step to salvation, but plenty will delight at his departure. Truth be told, his six-year reign on Merseyside defies simplistic judgments. Was he, for instance, a defensive manager? At times, yes, but his two major trophies were secured after 3-3 draws and Liverpool attacked with coruscating brilliance at the end of the 2008-9 season. Is he a poor purchaser of players? There is evidence to support those claims amid the 77 arrivals, but, from Jose Reina to Fernando Torres, there are some astute acquisitions. Was Benitez granted the resources to succeed? Given an outlay of around 250 million and a net spend of 110 million, probably, though not in his final three transfer windows, when he recorded a profit. Is he a divisive figure? Yes, but in person he is more amiable and courteous than some of his peers, who can more accurately be accused of arrogance. Did Liverpool overachieve or underachieve in his time? The answer depends upon when the competition, the context, the time it is given. In his last season, however, it is clear. For a manager with an unfortunate association with the word "fact", the numbers painted an unflattering picture: a fourth successive season without silverware, a slump from second to seventh and a total of 19 defeats, three of them in a Champions League group stage that damaged the club's already precarious finances. It made Benitez's position awkward, if not untenable. Like Gerard Houllier, had he left earlier, it would have been with his reputation higher. As it was, he achieved much but overstayed his welcome. At no club are managers idealised, idolised and romanticised quite like Liverpool. It explains why the regulars at Anfield are slow to turn on underachievers and why there is genuine sadness about Benitez's going. Yet it is the right decision. A habit of conjuring improbable triumphs when most needed deserted Benitez in his final few months. So, seemingly, did the confidence of some of his charges. He was appointed, in part, because of the players who had voiced their admiration for his Valencia side, who defeated Liverpool in the Champions League in 2002-3. He departs, in part, because of the players; the fear of losing the crown jewels may have prompted Liverpool to act; if the manager commanded the backing of key personnel, their performances did not always suggest that much. That even those with an emotional attachment to the club, like Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, seemed to contemplate futures elsewhere reflected damningly on Benitez as well as Liverpool's predicament. With debts of 350 million, losses of 55 million and a reported transfer budget of just 5 million, it is a good time to go, because Benitez bequeaths his successor a huge rebuilding job, not least because of the context the unsatisfactory owners provide. He leaves a stronger side than the one he inherited and, in the youth policy he belatedly wrested control of, probably a better legacy, but as a club Liverpool are in no better a position in 2010 than they were in 2004. Among 350 games at the helm, plenty stand out: the FA Cup embarrassments at the hands of Burnley and Reading; this season's abject defeats at Fulham, Portsmouth and Wigan, plus the beachball-inflicted setback at Sunderland; the stalemates last season that ultimately deprived Liverpool of the title that eluded Benitez and his three immediate predecessors. And, on the other side, ending Chelsea's 86-match unbeaten home run in the Premier League and the brutally brilliant 4-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford; two, tense but raucously-celebrated Champions League semi-final victories against Chelsea, a 2-0 triumph in the Nou Camp and a 1-0 win at the Bernabeu that was followed by the 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid at Anfield; Steven Gerrard's second superlative display of final heroics against West Ham; and, above all, Istanbul. It cemented a legend at Anfield. Five years on, appreciation rightly remains for his efforts. Yet from the improbable heights of the 2005 Champions League final, Benitez's reign simply petered out. It concluded with a 0-0 draw against relegated Hull at the KC Stadium, completing a stumble and stutter into seventh place. Drained of belief, exhausted physically and mentally, Liverpool had yielded to Chelsea on his Anfield farewell seven days before. A subdued lap of honour followed. It was, like the manner of his departure, an undistinguished end.

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