Thursday, 26 February 2009

It's a different League

Yossi Benayoun's header brought Real Madrid's run of nine consecutive victories to a crashing halt as Liverpool took the lead at the Bernabéu in their last 16 Champions League encounter with Real Madrid.

The result was testament to Rafa Benítez's technical and tactical abilities, especially in cup ties. While Real Madrid started more brightly and played more fluidly, they crashed time and time again into Liverpool's carefully crafted defence.

A couple of early chances and a goal disallowed for offside were all Real had to show for in the first half, as the visitors slowly took control and even had the better of the period with Casillas keeping out shots from Torres and Benanyoun as well as a spectacular long-range effort from Xabi Alonso.

Juande Ramos brought Guti on for Marcelo after the break in an attempt to inject some fluidity into Real's attack, and perhaps hoping the Real Madrid veteran could find that killer pass that would unlock the Liverpool defence. It was all to no avail.

The side that had coolly slotted six goals past a hapless Betis in one half on the weekend, found Liverpool and the Champions League an altogether tougher proposition. Only long range shots from Robben and Higuaín troubled Pepe Reina, and not much at that.

With the game finely poised at 0-0, Heinze unnecessarily brought down Dirk Kuyt on the edge of the area. Fabio Aurelio curled in the resulting free kick and an unmarked Benayoun headed the ball past Casillas.

Expect two weeks of talk of "epic comebacks" from the press and the fact that everything is not lost. It's not an insurmountable task, but it will take several flashes of genius for Real Madrid to triumph at Anfield and move into the quarter finals.

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Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Juande vs. Rafa: A tale of two personalities

An article in El País contrasts the character and personality of the two coaches in tonight's Champions League clash between Real Madrid and Liverpool.

Four players who played under both men give their opinions, and it makes for fascinating reading, especially if, as has been rumoured on occasion, Rafa Benítez makes the move at some time back to Spain to coach Real Madrid, where he spent over a decade as a player and then coach of the youth teams.

José Miguel González, Josemi, spent six months recovering from a knee injury in his only season at Liverpool in 2004-05. Rafa Benítez never asked how he was. However, Juande Ramos, who coached him at Málaga used to talk to him constantly.

"Juande is a better person", says Josemi, now at Mallorca. "Rafa does his own thing. He worries about the game, studies the opponent's moves... but he doesn't do much on a day to day basis with his players. With Juande, those on the subs bench are happier, because he looks after them and constantly makes comparisons to put pressure on the starting eleven."

"Rafa used an expression we found painful: 'A substitute with a substitute is more of a substitute', says Palop, who played under Benítez at Valencia before ending up at Sevilla under Ramos.

"Benítez is a great coach, but on a personal level I felt I didn't exist; I was only there to train. Never a word to see how I felt. He would surround himself with the most important players and completely ignore the rest." Palop adds that this contrasted with Juande who "bonded with the players and was ready to give a chance to everyone without making a distinction".

The Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, shares this view in his autobiography: "Benítez is not cold towards me, just detached. Rafa doesn't think he needs close bonds with players, even the captain. But respect flows naturally between me and Rafa: he's the manager, I'm a player. Everything Rafa says and does is designed to strengthen Liverpool. Twenty minutes after I lifted the FA Cup, Rafa was downstairs talking to the press and telling them Liverpool could have won it without me. 'I don’t think we would have lost if we didn't have Stevie,' he said, 'because we have played a lot of games without him.' I'd scored two good goals and banged in a penalty, which was not a bad afternoon's work, but I understood Rafa. The gaffer was not belittling my contribution, as some people thought, he was just saying that the team is everything, that his number eight is simply a cog in the Liverpool machine. Fair enough."

"Juande gives you a lot more freedom, both inside and outside the pitch", adds Mallorca midfielder Martí who played with Benítez in his stint at Tenerife and then with Juande at Sevilla. "They're both natural winners, incredibly intelligent and able to adapt to their squad and their opponents. Juande always wants to score a second after the first, whereas Benítez is more calculating."

Palop says that Benítez "does not miss a thing. He gives you a lot of information, sometimes too much. One day he told us everything about the Basle keeper. Juande tells you what you need to know and no more. But Benítez always had an ace up his sleeve with his line-ups. Juande is more predictable".

César, the Valencia goalkeeper is grateful to Benítez for giving him his Primera División debut at Valladolid. Juande on the other hand brought him to Tottenham Hotspur for his Premiership debut. "They're both extremely hardworking," he says "I met Rafa when we were both very young. He was ahead of his time, both with his analyses and in his use of the computer."

"Juande is a great guy. Over two legs he's very dangerous, as he showed at Tottenham, winning the Carling Cup, and at Sevilla, with back-to-back UEFA cups. Real Madrid will be making a big mistake if they let him go," concludes César.

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