From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.10 :: Mar. 07, 2009

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FOOTBALL / CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Benayoun takes centre stage

The match-winner came when Fabio Aurelio curled a free-kick on to the head of Yossi Benayoun, who was in more space than a Real Madrid defence should allow, writes Paul Hayward.

Rafa Benitez’s men came to the Bernabeu for their Champions League encounter and defeated a Real Madrid side who had won nine consecutive league matches. A wedge of their Euro-centric followers brought The Kop to the home of football’s greatest superpower and roared their approval for a warm-down. The Liverpool squad jogged around a pitch that was meant to serve as the stage for an ambush by a Real Madrid whose manager, Juande Ramos, was swiftly reacquainted wi th the obduracy and spirit of Premier League football.

It grows ever more curious. Liverpool bring that tenacity to European action but cannot find a consistent winning formula in a league they dominated for two decades before Manchester United ran off with the ball. People say they lack the depth of talent to end their 19-year wait for a domestic title and yet up pops a support act, Yossi Benayoun, to strike eight minutes from the end of a game Liverpool had smothered through sheer tactical forethought.

Benayoun played only because Steven Gerrard was unable to start. Fernando Torres, their gliding assassin, departed with an injured foot. And yet Liverpool still found a path to the honey-pot of a 1-0 first-leg away win. Can anyone figure this team out? Real, certainly, could not, and as Benitez waved to acknowledge the crowd’s affectionate singing in the dying moments he was also raising his hand to the possibility that he will one day stand in the next dug-out as Real Madrid manager.

For Liverpool to prevail without Gerrard for the first 87 minutes and Torres for the last 28 is testimony to the deep reserves of know-how that manifest themselves on the continent. “Liverpool FC — European Royalty,” announced one banner. A familiar delirium swept through supporters.

It was no disgrace to seek to nullify Real’s attacking threat. Granted, United had played with greater ambition against Inter, but only one English side went home with a win.

This was a classic chalkboard triumph. While Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso threw a blanket over Raul, Fernando Gago and Lassana Diarra, their more attack-minded colleagues waited for the opportunity to score from a breakaway or set piece. The chance came when Fabio Aurelio curled a free-kick on to the head of Benayoun, who was in more space than a Real Madrid defence should allow. The revenge of the understudy. Gerrard’s cameo was hardly required.

The chief threat was Arjen Robben, once of Chelsea, who displayed all his best and most infuriating traits in one parade of thwarted endeavour. Each time he was touched, he jumped like a scalded cat and then hobbled. Every time football’s status as a contact sport was reaffirmed by Liverpool’s tacklers, Robben turned it into a street crime. But at least he carried the ball and the fight to Liverpool.

The game’s main sub-plot was meant to be Torres’s return to the half of Madrid that loathes him. To the outside eye Torres was born on the wrong side of the tracks. By posting his allegiance to the less celebrated inhabitants of the Vicente Calderon stadium on the banks of the Rio Manzanares, El Nino turned his back on the opportunity to join the great Real goalscoring lineage of Di Stefano, Puskas, Hugo Sanchez and now Raul.

Torres would have looked a picture in the crisp white of the King’s club but his boyhood love was for Atletico, who trail Real 9-0 on the list of European titles won. To swoon for Atletico in the city where the world’s most illustrious club parade their majesty must have felt like walking past the Prado to take in the pavement art outside the train station.

Fortunately, though, success is not the only force to which the human heart responds and Torres was to become to Atletico what Raul is to Real: a Madrileno sent down from the stands to the pitch as an emissary of the people. Before the kick-off Liverpool’s record signing at £26.5m went down on his haunches and stared at the ranks of white like a skier studying an arrangement of slalom poles.

But it was not his night. There were intimations of his increasing frailty when a first-half bang to the foot sent him to the touchline for treatment and he was withdrawn after just over an hour.

The pursuit of a first league title since 1990 has assumed greater emotional importance in this year of the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, and the game at Manchester United on March 14 remains the season’s biggest. But so much joy flows in Liverpool’s European universe that England must seem another country, remote and unconquerable.

THE RESULTS

February 25: Chelsea 1 (Drogba 13) bt Juventus 0. Half-time: 1-0; Real Madrid 0 lost to Liverpool 1 (Benayoun 82). Half-time: 0-0; Sporting 0 lost to Bayern Munich 5 (Ribery 41 & pen-63, Klose 57, Toni 84 & 90+1). Half-time: 0-1; Villarreal 1 (Rossi pen-67) drew with Panathinaikos 1 (Karagounis 59). Half-time: 0-0.

February 24: Arsenal 1 (Van Persie pen-37) bt Roma 0. Half-time: 1-0; Atletico Madrid 2 (Maxi 4, Forlan 45+2) drew with FC Porto 2 (Lopez 22, 72). Half-time: 2-1; Inter Milan 0 drew with Manchester United 0; Lyon 1 (Juninho 7) drew with Barcelona 1 (Henry 67). Half-time: 1-0.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009



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