In an interview with Spanish publication AS, Rafa Benitez told Miguel Á. Vara about his pride at getting through to the knockout phase of the Champions League, and his gratitude for the support the fans have shown him.
First of all, congratulations on beating Marseille.
It was a victory we very much needed and means we continue in a competition we like and people can celebrate. For what we experienced at the airport it is worth the effort.
As always, many fans travelled to support us and on the way home we were at the airport at the same time. They began to sing and jump and then the police didn’t know what to do because they wanted to come to me to greet me! They asked me what they should do and I told them nothing; they let them approach me and they began singing to me that I am not leaving and they embraced me.
Do you feel the people’s coach?
I am the Liverpool coach and I say this with much pride.
But in recent weeks the fans have been massive in their defence of you…
The Liverpool fans, above all, appreciate and acknowledge the history of the past three years when the team came from a situation of ostracism. I think they have all very much appreciated that and every day I feel their affection more.
This type of support would be unthinkable in Spain, no?
Neither in Spain nor I think anywhere else, because we are talking about petitions on the Internet, demonstrations, chants and banners in the stadium – this is incredible and I insist that we must be very grateful to them.
Pressure from the owners seems to have slowed with that reaction…
Things are calm; we are focused on the games and the team in general is responding well.
How is your relationship with the owners of the club?
On a personal level the relationship is good; we have had some disagreements at the professional level, but when we meet and talk we will clarify everything and we will see it is just a misunderstanding.
Is the problem their not living in Liverpool?
The distance does complicate it a little, so when they come over things will be solved.
What are your hopes for when you are face-to-face with the Americans?
We all want the same thing – what is best for Liverpool so I am sure that we will understand each other well.
If you had known what you would have to contend with from the owners, would you have still come to Liverpool?
I have the virtue of not working on assumptions, I will only say that I am very happy at Liverpool and I want to be here for many more years.
But something is happening in England – where there was talk of a philosophy, that is no longer so because in the Premier League there have been five dismissals this season…
Perhaps there is more pressure. Results are expected more quickly and especially so because there are people investing a lot of money. This makes the owners a little more nervous. But I think that everything will settle down now and, as it has always been in England, you will be given time to carry out your projects.
Speaking of projects, are Liverpool favourites to win the league?
There is a misunderstanding because people talk about the money we have spent at Liverpool, when between what we have recovered and what we have spent we are similar to other top teams, but not to the biggest teams. If you look at it, United have spent £70million whereas we spent £40m or so and recouped £26m. That’s why I say that although a lot of people said that we should win the title because we have spent a lot of money, there are other teams like Chelsea, United, West Ham, Newcastle or Aston Villa who have spent a lot of money too, so nobody is guaranteed to win the title. Arsenal lead the way in investing a lot on young people over many years and they are now collecting the fruit. All the top teams spend a lot and that doesn’t guarantee the title; the Premier League is difficult to win because Chelsea, United… they are very large and are building on foundations they have had for years.
What does seem to be the case is that the Premier League is more open than in recent years
Yes, but it is not only equality between the top four, there is more equality among all in the sense that anyone can beat you on their day.
Returning to the Champions League, you will certainly draw a big club, would you prefer an Italian or Spanish side, perhaps Madrid or Barça?
It has been tough to qualify and so we are savouring the moment and enjoying the achievement – we haven’t thought yet about which team would be better to meet.
And on Sunday you host Manchester United ..
That’s why we’ll leave the euphoria for others. On the plane back from Marseille I was already talking to a number of players to see how we could improve. The praise soon weakens and you can’t relax just because you reached one goal; if you do you will not reach others.
Let’s talk about our own names: Fernando Torres.
We are very happy with him. He has a very good mentality, and I think that he is very happy at Liverpool, is happy in the team and the fans like him tremendously.
How has he improved since leaving Spain?
He has a little less pressure because at Atletico Madrid he was the main player, he had to bear the full weight of the club, but here he shares that pressure with team-mates who have a lot of experience and that helps him be more confident, more calm and to be more of a team player.
One of the players sharing that weight is Steven Gerrard. It’s always said that you have a bad relationship with him…
That is one of the hoaxes put out by the press, these get repeated over and over again and people start to believe them. It is a pity that this happens and even more so in this case because it is not true; Steven is a great lad and our relationship is very good.
Now there is another Spanish coach in England…
Juande is a good coach and having more Spanish coaches working outside the country is important because it shows the level of quality overall.
What is the biggest problem he can face?
The language first, because you don’t control the subtleties of the language. It’s one thing to speak English and another to know how to say things, at what point to use intonation in a way that motivates the team – this is quite complicated.
Is this is the best Liverpool have been since you arrived?
Yes, it is. The team has improved a lot. The squad in general has many more alternatives, young players in many cases, but quality. We are still in the development stage, which is why I insist that the team can improve, but there are quality players with ability to be very important players in the Premier League because they have talent.
Are you going to strengthen the team in January?
We have had a central defensive problem because we couldn’t close the deal for Heinze, and then Agger was injured. That’s forcing us to play with Hyypia, who is 34 years old, and Carragher for all matches, usually twice a week and, with the intensity of the game here, it isn’t easy to carry on like this. Our aim is bring a central defender in to balance the team in that position.
How do you see La Liga?
I see that there are teams who have still not found their rhythm and so Madrid are winning and taking advantage, but the other teams have yet to wake up and when they do it will be a more competitive Liga.
Are Barça one of the teams that need to wake up?
Barça have quality and, if you have played well before, you can do it again for sure.
Speaking from a distance is difficult, but I still think he is a great footballer. However I don’t know his day to day situation, so the right thing is for me is to not express an opinion.
Another team going through a difficult time: Valencia…
I have the same answer. I know a lot about Valencia and this means I have even more respect for them, so I can’t really comment on what’s happening to them.
But we can talk about their coach, because you’ve played several times against Koeman.
Not against him, but against his teams. If I had played against Koeman as a player then he would have won for sure. When we played against Benfica, it went wrong because they scored from a free-kick in the last two minutes, and then we had to battle but they eliminated us from the Champions League. With PSV we had better luck, we performed better, but whenever we have faced them his teams have been good, they have been dangerous and we have had to work hard to achieve positive results.
Koeman insists on changing the system, do you think that the squad can cope with this?
I think the players are the most important thing, that is obvious. From there, having players with intelligence lets you change the system and find the weaknesses of an opponent, at the same time playing to your strengths. I do not believe that you can talk about just the players, or just system – the two things are related.
Another team – Atlético. Better without Torres?
All I will say is that, fortunately, we have Fernando here and we are very happy with him. If Atlético are doing well than that is good for them.
One thing that is settled is the national team…
This shows that you must always be patient. If you trust the coach, in the end their ideas can develop and they can get results. Spain has quality individuals, and has now shown they can work as a team and play well as a group. We will now see how far they can go.
And how far will this Liverpool team go?
As far as we can. Our professionalism and our fans demand it.