NEWCASTLE – On his mobile phone, Rafa Benitez has a photograph sent to him by Liverpool supporters after his Newcastle team beat Manchester City at the end of January.
Written in large letters in the snow on a Merseyside road are two words: “Ta Rafa.”
A reminder, then, that Benitez — manager of Liverpool between 2004 and 2010 – has already done his old club one big favour this season, and it goes without saying that when Jurgen Klopp and his team face Newcastle at St James’ Park tonight (8.45pm SA time), there will not be room for another.
Newcastle, on reasonable form throughout the spring, will all but hand the Premier League title to City if they take points tonight.
Victory for Liverpool, who have lost only once, and the season will remain alive until its final day.
“Whatever happens, Liverpool are one of the best teams in the world,” said Benitez. “We were lucky to stop City at home so we will see what happens against Liverpool. But if they play at their best then it will be difficult for us.”
Benitez will be forever associated with Liverpool because of the Champions League win of 2005. He also still has a home on Merseyside.
But 10 years ago, he was in a similar position to Klopp in the Premier League. Liverpool ran Manchester United mightily close in 2008-09, and the plot-line was similar.
Benitez’s team lost only twice in the league that season and finished strongly, winning 10 of their last 11 matches.
But, as City are threatening to be this year, Sir Alex Ferguson’s United just proved too strong. Whatever Liverpool did, United matched.
And so a 19-year wait for a league title went on. Currently, it stands at 29 years.
“Sometimes other teams are just stronger,” Benitez shrugged. “Fair enough. You have to try and do better next year.
“I know what it means to people in England to win the league, and in Liverpool, the fans want to see the team winning trophies.
“Some people will say, ‘You have to win the league’. But maybe you cannot, because the other team is stronger or they have a bigger squad or more money.”
Having lost 3-0 in Barcelona in their Champions League semi-final this week, it is possible – maybe even likely – that Liverpool will win nothing this season.
Given that they already have 91 league points, we may have to find a new definition for the word ‘failure’.
Ten years ago, United won the league with 90 points, and Liverpool were second with 86. Undoubtedly, Benitez’s squad suffered from a lack of depth.
Led by the exhilarating chemistry between Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, Liverpool could be devastating as they showed in winning 4-1 at Old Trafford.
But beneath the glossy top coat, that vintage could be a little scratchy.
Klopp currently has star quality throughout whereas Benitez’s squad carried players such as young French striker David N’Gog, Spanish winger Albert Riera, who made 24 league starts, and the Moroccan winger Nabil El Zhar, regularly used as a substitute.
“The players we had on the bench compared to the ones they have on the bench now is a huge difference,” Benitez said.
“We had one player, and I won’t give you the name, whose price was £1.5 million. He was the first substitute for one of our big names. It’s different now.”
In the summer of 2009, Benitez brought in four modest players, of which only Glen Johnson was to have any kind of Liverpool career at all.
Out went Xabi Alonso and Sami Hyypia, and the result that season was a seventh-placed Premier League finish. In the off-season of 2010, Benitez was gone.
“The problem now in football is whether you can buy the best players,” Benitez said. “When you have a good team they say, ‘Now you haven’t gone a step higher’, and that’s because sometimes you don’t have the money. You have achieved your maximum, and the other teams are still investing.
“It’s difficult for the current Liverpool team to go higher, because they are already really high. But will they stay there? Yes.
“They can compete well against Manchester City or Barcelona or Bayern. They have a young team, they understand the game and you can see the understanding between the players.
“They had control against Barcelona until Lionel Messi decided to do something different.”
Benitez, the worker of another small miracle at Newcastle this season, admires and likes Klopp and City manager Pep Guardiola, and if he is envious of two men working at the very top of the game, he does not show it.
Now 59, he has been around long enough to know that it is not always the best coaches who win the trophies and take the plaudits.
“It is not disrespectful to other coaches to say these two are special because it’s true,” he said. “But anyone can be special. They are special because they are winning.”
The circumstances of his departure from Anfield remain a cause of regret for the Newcastle manager. He will always see it as a job unfinished.
As for 2009, his allies will tell you it was a stellar season ruined only by a United team that happened to be better.
“It’s no problem, of course we have to prove it again tomorrow, but we didn’t have to pick up players in Barcelona and give them a hug."— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 3, 2019
The boss looks ahead to #NEWLIV. 👊
Others will say he chose to take on Ferguson at an infamous press conference in January that year and paid a price. His team didn’t win for four games after that, their worst run of the season.
“We were defending the club against the Establishment,” he smiled, in reference to what he believed was a cosy relationship between Ferguson’s United and the FA.
“At Old Trafford, a kid with his father... they had a flag saying: ‘Rafa is cracking up’. But we beat them 4-1. Okay?
“In the end, we couldn’t do any more. They just did better than us.”
This time next week, if not sooner, we may be listening to a similar refrain. It will be a surprise if the accent is Spanish.Daily Mail