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Why this former Liverpool man can be a success at the Bernabeu

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There was something strangely symmetrical about the manner in which the Spanish league was won this season. It was fitting that the title was decided in both Barcelona and Madrid, though not in the stadiums you might expect.

Real Madrid scored 4 at Espanyol’s Estadi Cornellà-El Prat, Ronaldo scored his seventh hat trick of the season and as Carlo Ancelotti watched on in the late night Catalan heat, no smile dared spread across his face. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s victory at the Vicente Calderón against Atletico Madrid ensured the title would return with them.

Eight days later the Italian had been sacked, less than a year after winning La Décima, Real Madrid’s long awaited 10th Champions League title.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s popular WWII novel Slaughterhouse Five , every death is followed by the phrase “so it goes”, in order to show how each death is equal, inevitable, no matter how it occurs. When Florentino Perez announced the departure of Ancelotti it would have been equally apt if the announcement ended with Vonnegut’s proclamation.

This is life at Madrid, each manager’s tenure acting simply as respite between speculation of who will be appointed his successor, and as the rumour mill began it’s (milling?) there was some surprise that the name it spat out was that of Rafa Benitez.

Rafa Benitez has enjoyed  success wherever he has travelled.

When the rumour about Benitez first began, Real Madrid’s official mouthpiece, Marca, ran the headline, “Only if there is nobody better”, and indeed many bemused spectators have come to the conclusion that Benitez’s imminent appointment highlights the fact that there is indeed nobody better.

For many potential candidates, taking over the Bernabeu hot-seat must seem to have as high a life expectancy as a starring role on Game of Thrones, but there are a few factors to consider before Benitez is doomed a failure prior to even signing his contract.

First of all, Rafa Benitez is really rather good in La Liga. Perhaps unfairly labeled a cup manager, let us not forget that before Simeone’s Atletico team of 2013/14, Benitez’s Valencia side were the last to break up the Madrid-Barca dominance of La Liga, winning two titles in three years between 2001-2004.

It has now been three years since Madrid last won the league title under Jose Mourinho, an eternity to fans as demanding as the Madridistas. If Benitez can recapture this previous league form with a much better squad than he had at the Mestalla then it surely won’t be too long before the league trophy returns to the white half of Madrid.

However let’s not forget that his cup record isn’t half bad. Along with his league exploits, Benitez added the UEFA Cup to Valencia’s trophy room in 2004. His next European trophy was even more impressive, taking a less than stellar Liverpool side to their 5th Champions League trophy in his first season in England, masterminding one of the most extraordinary comebacks in history against AC Milan. This was followed with domestic success in the FA Cup in 2006.

In his brief stint at Chelsea, Benitez won another European trophy in the form of the Europa League, and in his first season at Napoli managed to win the Copa Italia. Make no mistake, cup pedigree is useful, if not vital at a club like Real Madrid. Not only do they expect European honours every season, but this is a club for which every game is like a knockout game, entire seasons and the stability of a manager’s employment can oscillate wildly from game to game.

That Benitez is a manager comfortable with pressure is obvious with his record in knockout tournaments, and it is exactly those kinds of experiences the Spaniard will have call upon if he hopes to be a success at Madrid.

Liverpool supporters will not forget the Spaniard’s impact in a hurry.

It also must be noted that the pressure and the lifestyle associated with Madrid is nothing new for Benitez. In his short injury plagued days as a youth footballer, it was through Real Madrid’s youth ranks that he rose. When injuries forced him to prematurely retire, he took over Madrid’s Castilla side, winning an u-19 league and two u-19 Spanish cups.

Crucially his formative years as a coach came in Madrid, the ambitions, philosophy and ethos of the club from Spain’s capital are fully understood by Benitez. Many managers enter through the Bernabeu’s revolving doors, but not many know exactly what to expect when they arrive, and while it may be difficult to second guess any decision made by the volatile board, few managers would be as prepared as Benitez himself.

When Benitez has been criticised it has usually been for his poor league performances. One can point out his poor final season at Liverpool and his disaster in his only stint at Inter. However you must temper both these failures with the financial situation at both clubs at the time.

At Liverpool, Hicks and Gillett’s period of ownership was categorised by a noticeable dearth in funds made available for transfers, even after Liverpool finished runner up to Manchester United in the Premier League title race. At Inter, owner Massimo Morrati rejected Benitez’s claim that key additions were needed to improve an ageing squad, despite the treble success a year earlier.

That Liverpool did not win the league under Benitez is unfortunate, but it is not unique. 25 years and 8 managers have passed since that was last achieved. As for Inter, one only has to look at their struggles in the five years that have passed since Mourinho won the treble to see the size of the task Benitez faced.

Both these situations show a lack of understanding from owners that any period of success can easily lapse into stagnation, without an influx and an exodus of players year on year, players get too comfortable, lack hunger. Manchester City this year serve as an example of the danger of a lack of quality imports following a year of success.

This is unlikely to be a problem at Real Madrid where players are kept on their toes as much as the staff, there has been much speculation over the fate of Gareth Bale and the possible incoming of David De Gea among others, one thing is certain, this is a club that never stands still.

Rafa Benitez and Real Madrid could be just the right match at just the right time. Real Madrid will be determined to reaffirm their place as Spain’s premier club ,while Benitez, plagued by a less than complimentary service related nickname, will be determined to prove that he deserves a seat at Europe’s top table.

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Why Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson was one of the signings of the summer

Jake Jackman

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Robertson
Photo: Reuters

Andrew Robertson isn’t a household name, but he established himself as one of the best young players in the Premier League performance with an excellent performance against Manchester City.

Few expected Liverpool would be able to topple the runaway league leaders, especially after the departure of Philippe Coutinho. However, the Reds delivered one of their best performances since the appointment of Jurgen Klopp and took the three points to consolidate their own position in the top four.

It was a nervy end to the match as the visitors fought back to grab two consolation goals, but given the incredible energy that the home side showed since the first whistle, a stuttering end can be forgiven.

The 23-year-old was a signing that went under the radar during the summer and those football fans that don’t have their finger on the pulse may not have known that he had moved to Anfield. Despite a good season with Hull City, it is rare to see a player move from a relegated side to one in the Champions League.

There aren’t a lot of quality full-back options in the Premier League and Robertson showed enough to justify a transfer. It was a risk, but at the price of an initial £8 million, it was one worth taking.

The club’s official site reported the following quotes from Klopp upon the deal being announced:

“For Andrew, this is another big step on what has been a quite incredible personal journey in a very short space of time.

“I know our environment will benefit him and help him push himself even more than he has already. This is a player who does not limit his ambition.”

Klopp can’t be faulted for his record in the transfer market since arriving at Liverpool. His big money purchases have all been successes, but his decision to bring Robertson could represent the best value for money. The Reds’ boss clearly saw something in his character that suggested he would develop quickly at Anfield and his emergence in recent weeks has proven him correct.

The left-back was eased into life at a top-six club and made only three appearances for the club before December, two of which came in the Premier League. For Klopp, he needs to fully trust that a new player understands his style of play.

Those already at a high level, such as Mohamed Salah, can be expected to step straight in as they have a lot of experience of playing different systems. However, Robertson had been playing a more traditionally British system at Hull City and likely lacked the tactical knowledge of the rest of the squad.

Since the start of December, he has made the left-back position his own and his efforts against Manchester City showed that he can stand out against the very best. He was given a difficult task of marking Raheem Sterling, the former Liverpool player.

The City winger has been one of the best players in the Premier League this season and is among the top scorers. He would have been relishing the opportunity to return to Anfield and shine, but he was kept quiet by Robertson.

The former Hull City player was keen to go forward and support the Liverpool attacks. His distribution and decision making were both superb against Manchester City. In the past, we have seen Liverpool full-backs get caught upfield as they try to stick to Klopp’s strict tactical instructions.

It is difficult to master playing the position in this system, but Robertson is showing maturity beyond his years. He completed 79% of his passes, which is a good accuracy given they were playing an opposition that press high up the pitch.

Talking of pressing, Robertson was relentless in this area of his game and regularly put pressure on the Manchester City attackers. He was directly responsible for a number of turnovers as he didn’t stop running from the first minute to the last.

There was one incredible moment when he chased a ball back to Ederson and followed it until he eventually fouled Nicolas Otamendi. The Kop responded with a cheer fitting of a goal. They could see his effort and responded to it. Although he didn’t win possession, his manager would have been delighted with that phase of play.

His aggression was shown through his tackling. Robertson completed seven tackles and was only beaten twice on the dribble. Considering he was coming up against the likes of Sterling, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero, this is a very impressive return.

In addition to his tackling, the Scottish international made seven clearances to relieve the pressure on his team. The last few minutes were nerve-wracking for the home side, but the left-back remained assured in his defensive work.

Although he has a lot of areas to improve, Robertson is getting better with every game and he is establishing himself as a top-six full-back. Liverpool gambled on his potential and Klopp’s ability to develop it. His slow introduction to the first-team coupled with some excellent performances during the last six weeks show that the German manager knows what he is doing.

The 23-year-old’s performance against Manchester City captured the nation’s attention. He now needs to push on and consistency deliver at that high level.

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Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City: Three talking points from Anfield

Rob Meech

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Liverpool
Photo: Reuters

Liverpool ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League record and climbed to third spot after breathtaking encounter at Anfield.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fabulous early strike was cancelled out by Leroy Sane as the two teams went into the half-time break level-pegging. Three goals in nine second-half minutes looked to have given Liverpool an insurmountable advantage, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah all striking.

However, City mounted a late comeback and set up a grandstand finish thanks to goals from Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan. Liverpool, though, held on for a deserved victory as Pep Guardiola’s men suffered their first defeat of the campaign. Here are three talking points…

Rampant Liverpool turn on the style

If any fixture was going to prove City’s undoing, it was this one. Liverpool are unpredictable but when on top of their game, few teams can live with them. They were respectful of City but undaunted by the challenge they faced, taking the game to their opponents right from the kick-off.

In their first match since Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona, Liverpool showed the Brazilian is not irreplaceable. The Fab Four may have been reduced to three, but each of Mane, Salah and Firmino found the net. The movement and pace with which they attack is frightening, as City found to their cost.

Record signing Virgil van Dijk was ruled out of the clash and Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies were magnified in his absence, with recalled goalkeeper Loris Karius also unconvincing. The Reds are still a work in progress in that regard, but under manager Jurgen Klopp they are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

City succumb but remain in the driving seat

Many believed it was City’s destiny to become only the second Premier League team to go through a season undefeated, following Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04. But such talk can now be consigned to the rubbish bin. Despite their sensational form, it would have been a monumental achievement not to lose a single fixture.

In one respect, Guardiola will be glad it has happened. Their advantage at the top of the table remains 15 points, albeit perhaps only for 24 hours, and there is no indication this result will spark a poor run of form. City fought back valiantly after the shock of conceding three times in quick succession, which will please the Spaniard greatly.

Guardiola was philosophical in defeat and recognised his side had played their part in a magnificent contest. Sometimes, a reality check is a good thing. City may no longer be invincible, but they are still the overwhelming favourites to be crowned Premier League champions in May.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is proving his worth

His Liverpool career did not start the way he would have imagined after completing a summer switch from Arsenal. In a quest to play regular football, Oxlade-Chamberlain moved to pastures new and hoped he would be rejuvenated. Initially, he struggled for game-time and his brief performance were often derided. As a result, he lost his place in the England squad.

However, Oxlade-Chamberlain is growing in stature and produced arguably his best display in a Liverpool shirt against the runaway Premier League leaders. Nothing builds confidence like a goal and his long-range strike that gave the Reds a ninth-minute lead did just that.

Playing in the central role he had coveted, Oxlade-Chamberlain was a dominant figure, using his strength and pace to great effect. His transfer to Liverpool was greeted with scepticism, but it’s clear to see that working under Klopp is having a positive impact. The former Southampton man will hope it’s enough to help him regain his place in the national team.

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Are Liverpool potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Reuters

Jurgen Klopp has guided Liverpool to the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2009, but can the German replicate the club’s impressive long-standing history of success in European competitions and guide The Reds all the way to the final?

Here, The Boot Room examines whether Liverpool have the potential to win the Champions League.

Progress so far

Liverpool were able to safely navigate the Champions League play-off against Hoffenheim back in August, running out 6-3 victors on aggregate, and they were rewarded with what appeared to be a relatively favorable group draw which paired them up with Sevilla, Spartak Moskva and Maribor.

Jurgen Klopp would have been delighted to have finished as group winners without suffering a defeat although the only consistency in his team’s performances were how inconsistent they were.

The Reds scored ten goals across two games against Maribor and netted seven times against Spartak at Anfield in the final fixture but also demonstrated their defensive frailties by throwing away a three-goal half-time lead at Sevilla.

Overall, Liverpool’s progress so far has been positive, entertaining and enthralling although much tougher challenges will lie ahead.

 

Squad Strength

Jurgen Klopp has built a squad that possesses an abundance of firepower and when Liverpool have their offensive players fit and firing they are capable of scoring goals against any team in Europe.

Mohamed Salah has been a revelation since arriving in the summer and has been well-assisted by the likes of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, although the loss of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona has dealt the Reds a significant blow.

Defensively the reds still remain fragile with neither Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius cementing the number one jersey as their own whilst questions still remain over whether Alberto Moreno, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip or Ragnar Klavan have the quality or consistency to be regarded as to-quality defenders.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk for £75 million will certainly help to ease Liverpool’s defensive woes but it remains to be seen whether one player will transform an entire defensive unit.

Manager

There have been gradual signs of progress at Anfield since Jurgen Klopp succeeded Brendan Rodgers in October 2015 although this has yet to be transferred into actual silverware.

The 50-year-old has built a team that is full of pace, power and technical quality in the final third of the pitch and that plays exciting, dynamic and expansive brand of football, yet he has yet to secure a major trophy for any team since Borussia Dortmund won the German Cup in 2012.

Klopp has had a degree of success in European competitions, guiding Dortmund to the Champions League final in 2013 and Liverpool to the Europa League final last season, although both occasions ultimately ended in defeat.

The charismatic German is still widely perceived as being one of the leading coaches in world football, but he still lacks the success in the Champions League to cement his place among the elite.

Chances of winning

Liverpool have won eight European trophies in their history, which would equate to five Champions League and three Europa League titles, but have failed to live up to that level of success in the last decade or so.

The Reds are back in the knock out stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2009 and it would take a heroic effort for Jurgen Klopp’s side to reach the latter stages of the tournament.

The team possesses the attacking quality to threaten any of the remaining opposition in the competition but have retained a defensive fragility that realistically undermines their ability to reach the final.

Anfield on a European night is a fortress, yet the problems will occur on their travels. Will Liverpool be able to go away to a leading club and grind out a clean sheet and a result to keep a tie alive? Probably not.

So, it is unlikely that Liverpool will win the Champions League outright this season, but they still possess the qualities to make a significant impact in the latter stages of the tournament.

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