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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 March 2007, 13:22 GMT
How Benitez beat Barca
By Caroline Cheese

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez and Barca counterpart Frank Rijkaard
Rafael Benitez's tactics foiled Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona
In the aftermath of Liverpool's Champions League victory over Barcelona, Rafael Benitez preferred not to comment on whether he had won the tactical battle with opposite number Frank Rijkaard.

The Liverpool manager's reticence was understandable.

Benitez was probably more aware than anyone that despite Liverpool's progress to the Champions League quarter-finals, Tuesday's 1-0 defeat to Barca in the second leg came hot on the heels of the gut-wrenching Premiership loss to Manchester United on Saturday.

It was left to skipper Steven Gerrard to highlight the part Benitez played in sending the champions crashing out of Europe.

"He is one of the best managers in the world, and he shows it with the tactics he used in Europe," said Gerrard. "We trust him to get it right, and he did it again this time."

In his analysis of the second leg for BBC Radio Five Live, former England manager Graham Taylor noted how the challenge of European competition seemed to "appeal to Benitez's tactical nous".

That shrewdness was never more evident than in the way he broke down Barca using two key strategies.

DEFENSIVE STEEL

Liverpool v Barcelona match stats
It stands to reason that when you are protecting a 2-1 lead against a team with the attacking flair of Barcelona, defence will be crucial but Tuesday's performance was hardly a backs-to-the-wall scramble.

In the first half, Barcelona had plenty of possession but Liverpool keeper Jose Reina did not have to make a single save, while at the other end the Reds twice hit the woodwork among 10 efforts on goal.

Taylor explained: "The greatest thing Liverpool did, especially in the first half, is they kept Barcelona in front of them as often as they possible could. That is the art of good defending.

"It's when the ball and the opponent is behind you that you're really in trouble.

"As long as it is in front of you, it doesn't matter how talented the player is, you're still in control of the situation. Liverpool were first-class at that."

As Liverpool tired in the second-half, Barcelona did begin to look more threatening but they found central defender Jamie Carragher in outstanding form.

"In the last 10 minutes, when Liverpool had a corner, Carragher was shouting to the players, pulling them back," said Taylor.

606: DEBATE

"The hallmark of a great defender is he recognises danger even when his own side have the ball because he knows the chances are the ball will be lost and he's already reorganising in preparation for that."

ATTACKING INTENT

Barcelona's Lionel Messi is marked by Liverpool's Alvaro Arbeloa
Alvaro Arbeloa was charged with marking Lionel Messi
Benitez had already produced a double masterstroke in the first leg by boldly playing two up front and introducing Alvaro Arbeloa at left-back to mark Lionel Messi.

The Argentine winger admitted afterwards: "Benitez's decision to put Arbeloa on me was a very good plan that surprised us. It was a clever tactical move."

Having scored two away goals, the temptation might have been to pack the defence in the second leg at Anfield but Benitez opted instead for a line-up which could also exploit Barca's weakness at the back.

While midfielders Momo Sissoko and Xabi Alonso helped the defence break down the Barca attacks, ahead of them was a willing quartet of runners ready to lead the counter-attack.

John Arne Riise, who hit the bar and had a shot cleared off the line in the first half, Steven Gerrard, Craig Bellamy and the tireless Dirk Kuyt deserve as many plaudits for Liverpool's victory as their defensive colleagues.

Indeed, Benitez's questionable substitutions in the second half only highlighted the brilliance of his team selection.

We won this leg but maybe we were lucky

Barca coach Frank Rijkaard

Riise, Bellamy and Kuyt all came off to be replaced by striker Peter Crouch, midfielder Jermaine Pennant and defender Fabio Aurelio and it was only then that Rijkaard's side looked at all likely to score the two goals they needed.

The Barca coach said he did not like Liverpool's style but the humbled Dutchman added: "We won this leg but maybe we were lucky considering the amount of chances Liverpool created in the first half.

"They are a difficult team to play against. They are strong, direct and are mentally tough. I can only congratulate them."

Barca vice-president Ferran Soriano told BBC Five Live: "Liverpool are strong, very well organised and very, very difficult to beat."

No wonder Benitez warned his European rivals that his side are a "match for anyone".



SEE ALSO
Benitez lauds Liverpool's display
07 Mar 07 |  Liverpool
Champions League clockwatch
06 Mar 07 |  Europe
Tuesday's football photos
06 Mar 07 |  Football
Barcelona 1-2 Liverpool
21 Feb 07 |  Europe


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