18 Dec 2012

Favourite Rafa Benitez Moments: No 1 - 'Rafa the Merciless' stuns Gerrard (2007)

Regular visitors to this site will know that I have always been one of Rafa Benitez's biggest critics. The Spaniard's cult rabid fans would never accept any criticism of the man, but every point I ever made about his managerial effectiveness was arguably valid, and often backed up with persuasive evidence/examples. Criticism, however, does not equal personal dislike, a ridiculous conclusion that so many people have drawn over the years. I've never attacked Benitez in a personal manner, nor would I. Contrary to popular belief, I actually have great respect for the man, and in this new series, I'll show that by highlighting my favourite Rafa moments from his time at Liverpool FC.

I'll start off with my absolute favourite Benitez moment: His decision to substitute Steven Gerrard in the October 2007 Merseyside Derby.

At the time, Gerrard was at the height of his powers for Liverpool, but irrespective of that, with the game delicately poised at 1-1, Benitez surprisingly yanked the Captain out of the game in the 72nd minute, and replaced him with Lucas Leiva, a barely known 20-year old midfielder from Brazil.

To quote Sam 'Ace' Rothstein in the Martin Scorsese movie 'Casino':

"What balls on this f***in' guy!".

Despite his inexperience, Lucas - making his Premier League debut - provided a much-needed alternative to Gerrard's 100 MPH balls-to-the-wall approach. Under intense pressure (he'd just replaced the club's most popular player!), Lucas produced a 20 minute masterclass in football intelligence, during which he calmed things down; kept the ball; promoted pass and move, stretched the play, and got in the box when it mattered.

And it worked! Liverpool scored as a *direct result* of Rafa's substitution: Ryan Babel passed to Jermain Pennant, who crossed for Lucas, who hammered the ball into the net. Well, almost. It would've been a debut goal for the Brazilian had Phil Neville not pulled a Luis Suarez and cheated by deliberately handballing on the line to stop a certain goal. Mark Clattenburg correctly sent off Neville, Dirk Kuyt scored the resulting penalty, and Liverpool went on to win the game.

This did not appease the masses though, and the knives came out for Benitez. For millions of Liverpool fans, Gerrard was - and still is - untouchable and beyond criticism, and there are few traitorous acts more severe than substituting the home-grown club captain against arch-rivals Everton. The sniping Press peddled the ‘Liverpool won, but it was still the wrong decision’ angle and Gerrard - clearly unhappy with Benitez’s judgement - publicly whined:

"I'll be speaking to the manager about it to find out why I was substituted".

The Spaniard further infuriated Gerrard’s huge fan base by suggesting that the Liverpool skipper needed to play more intelligently. When asked after the game about the decision, he observed:

"We needed to play with our brains and not with our heart. We needed to pass the ball better. You can have too much passion.

Fans and pundits alike responded to this withering retort with venom, unable to comprehend the logic behind removing Gerrard and leaving Momo Sissoko on the field, a player not renowned for incisive passing. A few years later, Benitez provided a more in depth explanation for the Lucas decision:

"I had Lucas [Leiva] on the bench and I could explain to him what I wanted. I couldn't explain to the players on the pitch with the temperature at 180 degrees. I wanted less passion and more calm. Someone that could analyse the game and say 'we are not in a hurry. If you play 15 minutes with calm and you have possession you will have four or five chances"

Prior to the Everton game, Liverpool had drawn five of their previous ten games and were playing dull, uninspiring football. Gerrard had contributed just one measly goal in those ten games, and his form, by his own admission, was nowhere near up to scratch. Blame it on injuries, blame it on England, blame it on whatever – the club's 'talisman' was not playing well at all, and the club’s turgid form reflected this.

Rafa the Merciless changed all that - his inspired decision wrenched Gerrard out of his comfort zone and simultaneously delivered a compelling symbolic message: Deliver the goods or you’re OUT. The embarrassment of being subbed against Everton shocked the Skipper into action, and over the next two months, he grabbed 8 goals and 6 assists in 9 games.

Gerrard may have been humiliated, but the means definitely justified the end, and Liverpool’s form after the Everton game (and Gerrard’s contribution to it) emphatically vindicated Benitez's decision.

At the time, I supported Rafa 100%, arguing that Liverpool fans should rejoice at the good fortune of having a single-minded manager with the balls to make tough choices, and the strength to deflect the twin critical assault of misguided, sheep-like fans and clich├ęd, agenda driven media.

Benitez deserves infinite credit for having the guts and the sheer chutzpah to make such an unpopular decision in a vital, high-pressure game. Lesser Managers wouldn't have had the nerve, and that is what separates good managers from the true legends of the game (i.e. the likes of Shankly, Clough, Happel, Michels, Sacchi, Ferguson et al). The true greats are not afraid to take risks; don't pander to egos or status, and do what needs to be done, irrespective of the pressure and abuse that may arise.

It’s no understatement to suggest that the substitution of Gerrard against Everton is possibly one of Rafa’s most unpopular player decisions, but in my view, it is also the bravest and most brilliant footballing decision of his whole Anfield career.

Bravo, Rafa!

Jaimie Kanwar


68 comments:

  1. Can't wait till Rafa returns in the summer after that whopper Rodgers gets sacked!!.

    Rodgers OUTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!

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  2. seems that it's not the first time that u praise Rafa based on this match:)...don't misunderstand, i love to see your article~

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  3. Those were the halcyon days of Rafa's reign.

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  4. very first time ive agreed with you

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  5. The part in me that remembers all the good things Rafa did agrees with you, the part in me that remembers the bad things too doesn't want the unrest that will unfold at almost every level of our club. We try to build something, which will take time. Patience is needed, possibly more patience than people of your ilk have. I for one have that patience (for now) and don't want our club to be in crisis again. Say no to Rafa.

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  6. I am not a rabid Rafa fan, yet nor will I castigate him for some of the mistakes he made. Let's face it, we'd give anything to be back in the sort of positions he consistently got us into. We should never have got rid of him - not because he was so fantastic - but because we needed consistency not 4 managers in 2 years. Rafa would never have wasted the money Kenny & Comolli did because he would not have been beguiled by English "talent"!! However, we are where we are; so it's imperative that we back FSG and Rodgers for at least the rest of this season and hopefully next. The answer is never to keep sacking the manager - ask Roman!!

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  7. jaimie arent you a blue nose

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  8. Now hes here, I'd like to see Rogers do the job for us...
    Though his appointment made no sense when the core of the team was and still is Rafas.

    I mean who better to the best out their own team?

    Rafa is a LfC-Legend!

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  9. you had to get a Suarez dig in.....again?

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  10. Give the guy a break, he had only ONE transfer window and had no time to do research. He playing entertaining football we makes loads more chances but we are not putting the ball away. So get off Rodgers back.

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  11. I'd give anything to c my club where it was when Rafa was our mngr. I really hope that BR gets it right, and I want LFC to b back there with him in charge. Somehow I can't c it though. I'd love to b proved wrong. The long wait continues.

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  12. Rabid fans? I think it's you that has been bitten by the rabid dog!
    Rafa use to frustrate me but talking about other Liverpool fans again blackens the clubs name and fans again chipping away at what made Liverpool great and the fans that once stuck together and Rafa was the last manager to have that effect at our club.

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  13. Think part of what made Liverpool great is that no single man was bigger than the club. That unfortunately went out of the window with Rafa, whom some support more than the club. Anyway, plenty of ManU and Everton supporters wish that Rafa returns to us (that is a fact), probably joined by Chelsea fans by now. That should make one think.

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  14. Like I said Rafa frustrated me! Could set a team up to win when needed in Europe but in the league he would set us up not to lose !Rafa is not a bad coach just ran into much trouble at Anfield and left his position unattainable and it was nothing to do with finishing 6th! Man U, Everton and Chelsea????? Players wanted to come to Anfield because of Rafa and playing for Liverpool good coaches attract players just as much as the club.

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  15. Brilliant article. One of your best..... I remember that moment and loved it. No one is bigger than the team.

    I still disagree that Neville cheated, there was no attempt at deception, he merely infringed the rules blatantly and was punished accordingly

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  16. i agree - we only value rafa now because of what we have seen in the last 3-4 years. Which has been disasterous. No matter how you dress it up the bottom line is that the fans are excited by who is on the pitch for us - and here we have failed miserably. Barring the signing of Suarez there hasnt really been an unequivocally successful purchase. We will rue the day that a 100 odd million was wasted on what the fans knew then and still know was mid table mediocrity. I've always wanted KK back as a manager ever since he first left because i was a child and saw the 1988 team - but this time round - even though we played good football - he was terrible. Rafa too made mistakes, and many of them, but he also made good decisions and brought in some top quality players and the big trophy the champions league. There is not a single fan who does not wish for those nights against chelsea or barcelona etc

    FSG are as much to blame as anyone. When they had money they had no strategy and now they have none they have a strategy. A club that used to buy talent to win trophies will now buy talent to increase their value and bring in profit! Except for all of this you need wenger's eye! For that BR is just starting his managerial career -and as have seen with borini and allen - unfortunately for us one thing he isnt is Wenger.

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  17. When exactly do you expect Rafa to come back?

    FSG never even approached him for the job when Kenny left and Rafa publicly made his disappointment known for not being approached so what makes you think FSG will approach Rafa even if by some miracle they get rid of Rodgers at the end of the season?

    Number 1: Rafa wants to run the show -- FSG will not allow that.

    Number 2. The club is now working under transfer budget constraints -- Rafa clearly is out of his depth when it comes to budget constraints so that makes it end game.

    If you do not get over Rafa then you are going to lead a very unhappy life as a Liverpool fan. He is not coming back no matter how much you hope and pray. Move on.

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  18. Hopefully Rodgers reads this and also subs Gerrard as his form this season has been woeful.

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  19. the boat was been rocked and nerly sank by the 2 pirates that wer sailin it i think the timing was bad for rafa wit a steadier ship iv no doubt that title wud b in anfield by now but hes gon now and probly defo wont be bak so all the best rafa thanks for the brilliant memories ynwa and we move forward cmon u reds

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  20. Rafa is the masterstroke of a tactician who can frustrate and derail Mourinho's cup ties

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  21. I agree re Neville. Also Neville didn't exactly "pull a Suarez" did he?Considering Neville did it three years before Suarez it would be more appropriate to say Suarez pulled a Neville. Get it right Jamie!!

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  22. Well, I have to maintain my record of getting at least one dig into every article.

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  23. I've said it before and I'll say it again: One of these days we'll read about a car being driven off a bridge into a river by some loon, and when they recover it and open the boot, the police will find Luis Suarez tied up in the boot.
    And the car will have been driven by some bloke called Kanwar.....

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  24. Excellent. One of the best articles you have written JK.

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  25. This is probably as well said about the situation as can be. FACT.

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  26. look at dalglishs first 6 mths and then look at rodgers the man has cut his nose off to spite his face loaning carroll out for nothing and downing is still a decent player not 20m but 12m easy he would do good in a top side rafa was the best man after we sacked the king unless we could get pep or jose on a small budget

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  27. your right its a sad time to follow the reds with a novice in charge what is a perfect manager 35/45 who can write a 250 page plan they should base the choice on a proven track record kenny forced them into a 3 yr deal by playing top footy brendan just finished 11th

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  28. As much as i would like to see Rafa back but i think Brendan has done good job so far and he deserves the support because he is trying very hard and on top of that he knows what he wants and how he wants to do unlike Hodgson or Kenny. It was obvious that team won't become great instantaneously but it will take time, so fans need not be so fickle and try to support the manager and the team. Compared to last season, improvement is there for all to see, everybody makes mistakes and even Rodgers has made few mistakes but club is moving in the right direction and thats all that matters.

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  29. So you also talk sense. Seldom though.

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  30. hahaha, is this serious or tongue in cheek. never really sure on this site.
    if serious, then a bit of kak: "liverpool fans got angry that lucas came on" hahahah. nice one bud

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  31. if he have asked me id have told him borini and allen arnt worth 26 million....funny laudrup can pick up michu for 2m....you have to ask yourself whats the guy doing...with the mediums and scouts at the disposal of a modern coach research isnt an excuse i have nominal resources but can gain access or profiles to most players in the world in one form or another....people really want to stop pitying these guys and making excuses for them they are paid a fortune...money me and you can only dream about...so i for one will be staying on his back

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  32. well they have just won the champions league so you can not really call his strategy an abject failure

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  33. He didn't only run into much trouble at Anfield (he did it at Valencia and Inter, too), but he tried to prove the need for reinforcements at our cost at times. At least that's the impression I've got. There are plenty of things he did I am grateful for, but in the end he seemingly forgot that it is about the club and the fans and not about politics.

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  34. That bemused look from Gerrard when Rafa took off Torres at 1-1 was classic, against Birmingham.

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  35. Never know, Neville might have watched Suarez in Dutch league more than 3 years ago...

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  36. Rogers finally realized Sterling and Allen need to be benched, maybe Stevie will be the next. But this is good not because they can't contribute(anymore), but so they can fully contribute when in squad.

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  37. The hypocrisy in your post is funny.

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  38. You are right, wasn't cheating...

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  39. And I love the fact Jaimie liked your post...

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  40. Its a pathetic excuse really. Good players perform week in week out...60 games per season. They are getting paid in millions for christsake!! Lampard, Messi, Terry and many other players in the world, almost all top players play regularly ...and they do perform.

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  41. amazing CL semi-final nights...!! ahh..!!

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  42. Haha, I don't see a replacement though.

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  43. That is the point- our players are not on the level of those players(still or anymore), so we have to manage them wisely...

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  44. Halcyon days- had to look it up, wow! Everyday you learn something new...

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  45. You can say you agree, it won't hurt, I promise...

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  46. Loving the series Jamie!

    One thing Benitez has is brass balls....BR ones are still developing.

    The manager is boss and SG was wrong to tell the media that he going to talk to RB about why he was subbed.

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  47. I don`t see why how much they get paid has anything to do with it. Being paid more doesn`t mean you suddenly don`t get tired ever, or become more talented. Sterling is still young, and history more often than not shows his body is still growing, and he will tire, and also need to be rested. You can`t compare how many games Lampard should play with Sterling. Don`t matter how much you pay Sterling, his body will still be developing. Also all people are different, I got a mate who never does exercise and can just turn up to a race once a year and do 26miles, and finish in the top 10%, yet I train 6 days a week and still find it knackering.

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  48. love rafa. he proved no one is bigger than LFC.
    stood up for the club and fans always, and was proud and loved the club.
    and a genius sometimes

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  49. I, too, learn a lot of new words on the internet. What is your native language, if I may ask.

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  50. Serbian, now called Montengrian since we are a country for our selves. Jovetic's country...

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  51. What a goal for Leeds! Rafa might be available sooner rather than later, hehe...

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  52. THAT i did"t like!

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  53. Then English surely is more difficult for you than it is for me, as my native tongue is German, the same language family as English. Serbian on the other hand is Slavic, isn't it? Did you learn English at school, or rather Russian (like my friends from East Germany)?

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  54. Nice article. Whats your slant on the storys about Sturridges agents fees circulating?

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  55. It's actually quite easy- nobody speaks our language so we are obliged to learn others. Plus we've got 30 letters and 4 accents in a very smart(and hard) system so we can imitate pretty much any European language(couple of native speakers asked me from which part of England I am from). So we can imitate all specific letters from your languages, but there is no way you or someone from UK or Spain can pronounce Filip Djuricic's last name correctly... And times of Russian in schools are luckily over...

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  56. Number 2? Can you tell us what manager can work under transfer budget constraints

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  57. I see. I've got a Welsh surname (which I won't publish on the internet). Haven't met anyone outside the UK who was able to say that name correctly, too. :-)

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  58. Hmmm.. Now you got me thinking could I...

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  59. Well, it's more difficult than this name
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llangollen
    but less difficult than this one
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llanfair_PG

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  60. When I read 1st I thought- too easy, he's gotta be kiddin', after the second- whaaaaaaaaaaaat?!?

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  61. Still if you want to pronounce the first on the correct (Welsh) way, it might be difficult for the tongue.

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  62. Wenger got slated for many of his signings. Some of them have turned out to be pretty good players after maturing a bit. I wouldn't write of Allen and Borini yet.

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  63. While those two pirates as you call them truly were leaches, you can't blame them for everything. Rafa has to take some of the blame, too. No-one forced him to alienate Alonso, no-one forced him to buy a crook named Aquilani or Voronin.

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