The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
It’s quite possible that if I die tomorrow, my only claim to fame will have been Rob Curling reading out my observation on Football Weekly that, “Rafa Benítez, like a one-armed lady of the night, has one specialty and that’s the Champions League.” And yet there it was last night at the Bernebeu: clear, empirical evidence that the adorably tubby Spaniard has mastered this so-called “league” like no other (and, unfortunately for Liverpool supporters, possibly this league and no other).
Of course, there was the Riise own-goal and that lost Champions League final. Yet as Immanuel Kant might explain, those little bumps may have been simply the Noumenon, the thing-in-itself, clashing with the extremely ornate footballing Phenomenon in Benitez’s head. It’s certainly a phenomenon that eludes rational explanation; this is a man after all who yesterday surmised Ryan Babel (as a lone striker no less) would be a sensible sub for up-until-then Liverpool’s best hope for a goal, Fernando Torres, and who more generally thinks Yossi Benayoun has a place at a club with serious Premier League title aspirations. And yet, in the eighty-second minute as little Yossi crept up behind Cannavaro and Pepe to head in Fabio Aurelio’s free-kick, I momentarily believed Rafa Benítez could bend spoons by looking at them.
The match, as they say, was a tense affair, featuring some wide-angle, cross-pitch, quick-passing football framed by the harsh floodlights and the droning air horns of the Bernebeu. Then there were the crisscrossing lattices of self-interest implied by rumours Benítez would be managing Real Madrid next year: Rafa impressing his suitors by humiliating them at home, Juande Ramos trying to upstage Benitez in order to keep his job, Real’s players wanting to charm their new boss, Liverpool wanting to keep their current boss at Anfield. Add to that the will-he-or-won’t-he-come-on speculation behind Gerrard’s benched hamstring and you had one of those European nights you can’t properly explain in a match report or a YouTube highlight.
Real were not as awful as Scott Murray would have you believe, although on paper they looked a bit shit: Raúl struggled to find space in front of the ball, Marcelo came in and out of existence, Higuain looked threatening for about five minutes. But it was Arjen Robben with his trademark manic runs up and down the edge of the area, wildly soft touches, and razor-like strikes in mid-step, who was essentially Real Madrid last night. He didn’t quite convince you they’d eke out a victory, but he reminded you that Madridistas have an imperative to entertain.
Liverpool were impressive, if a little less ticky-tacky and a little more Meccano set. They always look to me like an extremely complex machine with inner workings known only to the maker, with Dirk Kuyt running around to some unseen end, Mascherano keeping Real’s attacks nasty, brutish and short, Reina falling over for comic relief twice before taking his goal-kicks. As for Gerrard, well, he warmed up for what seemed like an hour before subbing on with five minutes left, sent on to clean up after Benayoun’s goal. It was cruel on him perhaps, but it underscored the core tension at LFC—is it his club or Benítez’s? Often Stevie G has to clean up for his master’s mistakes, but last night the only star of the show was Benítez’s inner tactical vision, a utopia of form that, while inscrutable, sometimes seduces you into believing it’s really there. It seems for now, Liverpool fans will have a few more opportunities to judge for themselves.
Richard Whittall blogs about football at the excellent A More Splendid Life.
by Richard Whittall · February 26, 2009