Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rafa Conjures Up Another Major European Upset

UEFA Champions League
1st Knockout Round 1st Leg

Real Madrid 0

Liverpool 1 (Benayoun 82)

13 European Cups between the two sides but for the past 2 decades, the two teams were rarely on the same football wavelength. One was even hailed as the ‘Galacticos’, as if a team representing Earth if ever celestial beings were interested in a game of football.

The other, meanwhile, trudged through the 1990s through mire of uncertainties and then early 2000 with much false hopes.

But the rise of a genius from the Iberian peninsular has brought back some glory days to the fields of Anfield Road. The phoenix has risen from the ashes or should we say, the Liverbird.

He has made Liverpool into a fearsome and organised side in Europe and a side to avoid during the draws. Critics would of course points out his shortcomings with Liverpool’s continual failure to bring back the 19th title back to Anfield but in Europe, this man’s tactical ingenuity is respectable.

He has placed Liverpool back in the upper echelon of European football, which many fans thought it was a God-given right. They failed to see how much hard work this man put in.

Sack him, they say. Like how the Jews echoed ‘Crucify Him!’ This is a genius either you love or you hate. Even the press wasn’t kind to him. Rumours were rampant throughout the week, with the build-up to this match not about whether Steven Gerrard would start or the face-off of the Prince of Madrid and El Nino, the Kid.

It surrounded his uncertain future at Liverpool, the contract that was left on his table untouched, his apparent quirks and the conflict with the Yank owners.

But we know Liverpool has a survival instinct not many teams possessed. They usually come up with their best when they’re besieged and beleaguered. Craig Bellamy and his golf club took centre stage in the press 2 years ago just prior to a colossus encounter with Barcelona.

Fast forward and we saw the similarities. And it was during these times where we saw the team unify and solidify their resolve.

In the glittering lights of the Santiago Bernabeu, they dug in against an overwhelming force. ‘No chance’, many says. 10 goals from their last 2 league games and unbeaten in 9. Surely Liverpool would be steamrolled over?

But the Reds trenched in, nullified the so called superstars and made them look ordinary. The press would say the Galacticos had an off-day but how often is it that big teams have theirs and it’s usually when they’re against Liverpool?

The art of nullifying and suffocating is hard to grasp, especially from the point of view of a football fan watching for entertainment. But it is at a canter for Rafa Benitez and his men.

Real Madrid spoke of the 3 goals that would come and of course Liverpool being fearful. But I guess that was exactly what the Reds would want to hear. The disdainful arrogance was all they need to inspire themselves.

The visitors were set up perfectly, albeit the injury of their skipper forcing him to start on the bench, they were like a flawless machine.

With the in-form Raul and Gonzalo Higuain leading the line, they must’ve been a handful. But how Liverpool gave them hardly a sniff is quite a feat. None of them were found anywhere near the penalty box.

Pepe Reina, whose allegiance is to the other side of Madrid, was a virtual spectator with only Arjen Robben causing any sort of concern. Other than that, Liverpool looked comfortable and were hardly threatened.

On the other hand, Liverpool were not adventurous understandably. The first 20 to 30 minutes, they bid their time to settle down in front of a intimidating crowd before giving Real Madrid something of a concern.

Fernando Torres tested Iker Cassilas with a stinging shot. His effort was a culminated by some poor defending; something Real never had a reputation of. Then he was once again tested by Xabi Alonso from the halfway line; something the Spanish midfielder has a reputation for.

With chances few and far between, Real were thoroughly frustrated and worse still, impatient. Studying their body language, Rafa must have been smiling on the inside. Because we all know teams who are impatient and frustrated usually gives away something.

With Fernando Torres withdrawn due to injury, it seemed more unlikely for them to grab an all-important away goal. Yet it is times like these, as I’ve mentioned, that they rise above their circumstances and make things happen.

An unnecessary foul by a supposed Liverpool-bound Gabriel Heinze gave Fabio Aurelio a chance to show what he does best. The Brazilian full-back impressed on the night with solid defensive work, stopping Robben while also provided an attacking outlet with controlled runs.

It was a peach of a free kick and just as the camera pans to show us the emotion on his face, it was full of belief and conviction.

Seconds later, with everything moving in slow motion, Yossi Benayoun rose the highest to head home from 10 yards out. Casillas had no chance of stopping it. The Israeli captain was left unmarked in a crowded penalty area and he made them pay.

Without Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool found their saviour from the land of Zion. Though not necessary a religious figure, he gave the visitors something to cheer for and obviously, a strong belief that they’ll make it into their 3rd quarter finals in 4 seasons.

And it was all too late for Real to conjure up any sort of comebacks. They were suffocated and by the time the Reds took the lead, they had no more fight in them. Juande Ramos had options on the bench but it’s just not worth the hassle.

A classic Liverpool performance in Europe and yet another goliath of European football fell under Benitez. Even though it is only half time and there’s still a second leg to play for, it is indeed a result that Liverpool fans should be thankful for.

It was supposed to be a result that sends shockwave across the board yet Liverpool does it ever so often that one have to wonder how did they always have to live up to just a mere underdog.

Though they prosper under such title, perhaps it’s time people take notice of what the Reds are about. If they could transpire this form over 38 games in the Premiership, maybe Sir Alex would have something to worry.

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