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Champions League Final: Benitez Tactics Just About Spot On


History, we are told, is written by the winners. It is said that in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 Champions League victory in Istanbul, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez berated his men, even after their remarkable comeback, for their mistakes in a dreadful first half display. AC Milan on that night were scorned as chokers, bottlers and worse. Little mention was made, in England at least, of how they had comprehensively outplayed Liverpool for most of the match. Milan manager Carlo Ancelloti was pilloried in the Italian press and thought certain to lose his job in the wake of the defeat.

Having overcome Liverpool in this year Champions League final on Wednesday, (May 23rd), this time the knives are out for Benitez. Many observers are claiming that a lack of tactical flexibility subdued a Liverpool side that enjoyed a weight of possession without threatening to score from open play. Whilst this has a modicum of truth, to hear it from pundits who are usually only too happy to trot out possession statistics when they support their own pet theory and not ask the same questions of Milan smacks of double standards.

The truth of the final is that Benitez and Liverpool were the better side overall. Not to the same extent as Milan were the better side in Istanbul, but then that’s not the issue. In the first half in Athens that dominance was far more pronounced than in a second where Liverpool perhaps could have gambled more or gambled earlier.

In dispensing tactical wisdom from the lofty viewpoint of hindsight though it’s important to remember that the managers are not afforded that luxury. If Benitez needs to question his performance on Wednesday night, it should have nothing to do with how his side was set up from the kick off.

In attempting to stifle Milan’s creative midfield players Benitez surprised no one. However, Liverpool’s ability to harry and harass allowed them far more time in the Italians half than was supposed. That they produced little from the possession they did gain high up the pitch was more to do with wastefulness from individual players than it was to do with a lack of a cohesive attacking strategy.

In point of fact after half an hour Liverpool’s attacking intent was pretty clear and appeared to have every chance of working. Get the ball, get it wide and get Kuyt and Gerrard attacking crosses. Parts 1 and 2 of this 3 point plan worked well enough. Where Liverpool came up short was in the quality of crosses, from Pennant and Zenden, and the willingness to get more men forward.

Having said that the inherent beauty in a game of football is the balance between defence and attack. Getting more men forward would leave Liverpool exposed to a counter attack. Not something Benitez was willing to risk in the first half a Champions League final. Had he done so and been caught out, no doubt the complainants would be shaking their heads about that too.

History though is just that. Milan got a break and capitalised on it. The award of a free kick on the edge of the box just before half time was 50/50, but we all know referees give them on occasion and wave play on at other times. Whilst the kick was well struck, it goes beyond the realm of sanity to claim the deflection off Inzaghi that took it into the net was anything other than fortunate. The goal galvanised Milan for the second half in which they improved and Liverpool struggled to impose themselves and was an obvious turning point.

Benitez may well have been guilty of prevarication in the second half and for that maybe he needs to look within himself to ask if he could have done more to force Liverpool to play further forward. This does suppose that Milan would have let them and that Benitez had the resources at hand to effect any change he saw fit to make. The second goal was well crafted and finished, worthy of the final. Liverpool, caught halfway between a need to guard against conceding a second and an increasingly urgent requirement for an equaliser, got the equation wrong and were punished.

Milan were worthy winners on the night. Luck played its part in the first goal and the tactics proved only the same thing that they proved in Istanbul in 2005. That a manager can get the strategy more or less spot on and still come out second best. Whilst those lining up to offer Benitez advice on how to send out his side will feel they are justified in their outrage, the man who should be looking at his side’s performance, Carlo Ancelotti, is receiving the plaudits he deserved 2 years ago in Istanbul.

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 You are spot on Keiron, well put. Liverpool stifled Milan thus setting the tone of the game, but had they come out and took Milan on at football, you know when you pass the ball from defence through midfield to your attackers, it would have been a whitewash. Whatever happened to teams just going for it and attacking each other ?


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