Commentary: New Deal Needs New Benitez For 'Pool To Rule

The Spaniard has won the battle to the tune of a five-year contract and, presumably, all the control in the transfer market he desires - but he'll need to manage a lot more than the maulings of Madrid and Man United to justify his extended stay at Anfield, believes's Mike Maguire.
Yes, folks, it's true: Rafael Benitez's latest and longest-lasting squabble with Liverpool's owners has finally come to an end. He has the new contract he so desired, after wrangling for months and months over near-complete control of transfers - a privilege Tom Hicks and George Gillet were, understandably, reluctant to grant.

The reason the Americans were so uneasy about handing Benitez more authority in the transfer market - and the reason the gaffer was so insistent upon gaining said authority - can be traced back to last summer's Gareth Barry debacle. The manager wanted to add the Aston Villa star to his already quality-laden midfield, but Hicks and Gillett wouldn't free up the funds for what they viewed as a luxury buy.

Thus, Rafa put up Xabi Alonso for sale in order to raise funds for Barry. But a combination of fan pressure, Juventus' inability to meet the asking price and the player's desire to remain at Anfield saw both deals collapse - and much to the Reds' benefit, given the Basque playmaker's scintillating form this season.

Then there are the flops Benitez has brought in over the past few years. The likes of Mark Gonzalez, Jermaine Pennant, Andriy Voronin, Philipp Degen, Andrea Dossena and Charles Itandje hardly speak volumes of his prowess in the transfer market. Sure, there have also been the Pepe Reinas, Fernando Torreses and Javier Mascheranos, but all those excellent acquisitions are countered by a heavy contingent of not-good-enoughs.

So the owners' wariness in entrusting purchases and sales solely to the manager is, on balance, completely and utterly justified, even though they have been equally as culpable in the club's transfer failings of late due to their lack of urgency in what is an extremely competitive market.

Money-handling aside, though, there are plenty of football-related reasons for H&G to dally over Benitez's new deal. For although Benitez has eased off his rotation policy somewhat this term (much to the chagrin of journalists worldwide, who can no longer justify the 'Rafa the rotator' tag), he remains as stubborn and unpredictable as ever - and that has had a negative impact on Liverpool's football at times.

Take, for instance, his explosive rant against Sir Alex Ferguson after the Manchester United boss moaned about referees and fixtures. That outburst just happened to coincide with a slump that saw the Merseysiders fall from Premier League leaders to third place, gifting the ascendancy - and probably the title - to the Red Devils.

Then there are those occasional line-ups that make every Kopite do a double-take and put their heads in their hands. He got a away with fielding a bizarre 3-6-1 formation at Portsmouth, thanks largely to the impact of super-subs Torres and Dirk Kuyt; but there was no such let-off when he decided to start Nabil El Zhar and Martin Skrtel on the right flank a few weeks back against Middlesbrough, who despite their miserable form going into the game, won 2-0.

That was the latest of Benitez's big gaffes, and one that seemed to end Liverpool's title aspirations once and for all. Predictably, disgruntled fans and press stirrers alike started calling for his head - and fair enough too. Often such hysteria is premature and unwarranted, but perhaps not in this case. The Spaniard just keeps making the same blunders season after season, and the club suffers for it.

Of course, it's been a different story in Europe. After walking through the group stage, the Reds have since breezed past Real Madrid to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League, claiming a stunning 5-0 aggregate win (punctuated all too typically by their defeat to Boro). But even as their team demoralised the Merengues at Anfield, sections of the support were already looking with anxious eyes to the weekend clash with Man United.

We know now that they needn't have worried. Defeat at Old Trafford would have effectively ended Liverpool's domestic race and left them battling for second place at best, but a ruthless display of quality, professionalism and outright desire led them to a landmark 4-1 victory - United's biggest loss at Old Trafford in the history of the Premier League.

That's what has swung things in Benitez's favour and forced his bosses back to the negotiating table. It would be naive to say otherwise. Beating - nay, murdering - the two teams vying for the title of biggest in the world is what has landed Rafa his lengthy, lucrative new deal. And one can't help but ask: umm, why, exactly?

The thing is, as impressive as 'Pool were against Madrid and the Mancs, those performances didn't actually demonstrate anything we didn't already know about them. There was no lesson learned, no corner turned, and certainly no trophies won. We know they're the most reliable team in European competition; they've failed to reach the CL semi-finals just once in their past four attempts, and they'll be favourites to go through again this year. And we know that they stand up for the big games, no matter what the occasion - heck, they went into the United game having taken 10 points from four games against the rest of the 'Big Four' this term.

That ability to bring out their A-game against their domestic rivals is a trait that was missing in previous seasons, certainly - but they've never struggled with it in this campaign. It wasn't the Chelseas and Arsenals that put Liverpool on the rocks, but rather the Fulhams and Tottenhams and Stokes and Hulls of this world. Like Doug Sanders in the 1970 British Open, it's the gimmes that have lipped-out - not the 50-footers.

But what's done is done: Rafa's got another five years, and some hack writer whining about it won't undo the Yanks' decision. Still, with power comes great responsibility, and now the ex-Valencia coach will be under immense pressure to deliver the goods - and that means Premier League glory.

What if he wins another CL crown, you ask? Surely that would justify his position at the helm of one of the world's most successful, popular and revered clubs?

Well, no. It wouldn't.

Sorry to say, but even a reenactment of Istanbul 2005 wouldn't wash over the Reds' chronic lack of stamina in the competition that each and every one of their fans wants to win most of all. Not even two, back to back, beating Manchester United 7-0 in each final would truly appease the Scouse army - especially those who were around to see the almighty teams of the 1970s and '80s.

The fact is, Liverpool must break their ever-lengthening drought in the league for Benitez to have done his job properly. For that is why he was hired in the first place - to do what he did at the Mestalla, where he led Los Che to a pair of Primera Division titles after a 31-year dry spell. And the key to his success or failure will be how he uses his new-found authority in the player market.

To put it simply, Rafa cannot afford to purchase any more flops. Even that middle-ground in which Ryan Babel and Lucas Leiva presently float could be enough to undo him. And it's not just about quality and spending big on superstars; it's about buying the right players, ones who will improve the first team and solve a problem area. That means a top-drawer winger or two, at the very least - something Anfield hasn't seen since Harry Kewell's first season at the club. There's no point buying a Robbie Keane when you need a Franck Ribery, after all.

The other key is to make sure certain players don't leave. We've already touched on Xabi Alonso and his now-indisputable importance to the team; but then there's Daniel Agger, the frustrated but enormously talented centre-half, and goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who is reportedly dreaming of a return to Spain. These are surely vital elements in the club's long-term plans, and ones that must be tied down and kept happy.

It remains to be seen whether Benitez, his backroom staff and his scouts can do all that must be done. Their strike rate so far is middling, especially on the transfer front. The thing is, Rafa has always complained about his budget compared to his rivals. That won't change, even though he now has control over who comes and who goes. And besides, Keane cost £20 million - hardly pocket change.

The verdict probably won't be reached until sometime next season, but it's fair to say the jury is still out on Rafael Benitez and his ability to lead Liverpool back up onto their perch.

Mike Maguire,