Benitez has magic touch in Europe
For a team that hasn't won its domestic league title for 17 years, Liverpool could capture a second European Champions League title in three seasons.
While regular champions such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Juventus, Bayern Munich, PSV Eindhoven and Lyon fail season after season to win European soccer's biggest prize, Liverpool has made it again to the trophy game despite finishing well behind in the domestic campaign.
If the Reds beat AC Milan for the second time in three seasons in Athens on Wednesday, it will be another personal triumph for Rafa Benitez.
Although his team can't find the consistency to keep up with Manchester United and Chelsea in the English Premier League, he has the magic formula in European continental competitions. Benitez led Valencia to the UEFA Cup title three years ago before moving to Anfield where he captured the Champions League title in his first season. Although the Reds tumbled to Benfica last term in the first knockout round, they are back in the final at the Olympic Stadium.
That might be something to shout about. Benitez says very little and prefers to deflect the praise that comes his way. "To play in the final twice in three years is a massive achievement for us. I must be really pleased for my staff and my players because we have another opportunity," Benitez said when asked how he does it.
"It's down to good players and good staff - good workers. It's not easy but every person in the club works really hard all season."
It doesn't sound like an inspirational rallying cry. For Benitez, however, it's his way of shifting the plaudits away from one individual, such as midfielder Steven Gerrard - or himself. When pressed, he admits that maybe the Champions League is better suited to Liverpool. The team manages to produce its best performances on the European stage instead in the week-by-week routine of the Premier League where it can't get motivated by playing the likes of Watford, Charlton and Sheffield United. "It's different when you talk about a nine-month competition," he says. "It's a different test in Europe when you have six group games followed by the knockout stages. We can manage better because it's a different competition."
Although Benitez won't explain what makes it so different, it's clear that he gets the best out of his players in the Champions League than in the 38-match Premier League.
When Liverpool won the European competition two seasons ago, it ousted Italy's Juventus in the quarterfinals, Chelsea in the semifinals and then rallied from a 3-0 halftime deficit agains AC Milan to equalize with three second-half goals and win on penalty kicks.
This season, it eliminated defending champion Barcelona out in the first knockout round, beat PSV Eindhoven in the quarters and then ousted Chelsea in a penalty shootout in the semis. Benitez says that doesn't mean Liverpool is the best team in Europe. It depends on the form of the teams they play at the time. "To talk about the best team is not easy," he said. "You can talk the best teams in Spain or the best team in Italy but it depends on momentum. Sometimes they are the best but, three months later, they are not."