Liverpool face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday and opposing manager Iain Dowie has been speaking of his admiration for Reds boss Rafael Benitez. "Liverpool are getting their best team back and I think Rafa has done a great job," said Dowie.
Dowie is relatively new to management – his first full managerial role started in 2002 at Oldham. He moved to Palace in 2003 and nobody seemed to believe his team would get promoted to the top flight. Including himself – as last season drew to a close he said that he didn’t think Palace were ready for top-flight football yet. With four games to go, Palace are second from bottom, two points from seventeenth place. To prove himself wrong, Dowie needs his team to pick up some points to get themselves to safety. Liverpool are also looking for points though, which should lead to a good match. The meeting earlier in the season went Liverpool’s way 3-2, with Baros getting a penalty right at the end.
One of the top tricks of successful football management nowadays is the psychological battles with opposition managers. Dowie is trying a new approach – praising the opposite number. To be fair to Dowie though, the praise does actually sound genuine: "Getting them through to the Champions League semi-final is a wonderful achievement. Who knows? They might go all the way."
Dowie, 40, paid lots of attention to the game in Turin, and went on, "He deserves immense credit for the organisational job he did with his players in the Stadio Delle Alpi. It was resolute and they never looked in any danger. I thought Juventus would catch fire but they never did. That was down to the way Rafa had his team set up. Don’t forget they were without their talisman Steven Gerrard. His record at Valencia stands up to serious inspection. He’s up there with the best – maybe Jose (Mourinho) has a little of something more about him."
Dowie revealed that he was impressed with Benitez when they met up to talk about possible transfers: "I met Rafa earlier in the season when we tried to do a deal for one or two of his players. I thought he was a fantastic man. He was very respectful of Liverpool’s history and was very positive about the job he was doing."
Two players only just back from injury have caught Dowie’s eye: "I think Xabi Alonso and Djibril Cisse look good players. That club always has extra expectation and Rafa has handled it well."
The fact that Liverpool have struggled away from home all season, and that Palace almost got a point earlier in the season against them, means Dowie knows his team have a chance to get something out of the game: "We have to make it as competitive as we can against them and it’s going to be some game. Their league form is strange. Looking at their players you would expect that their league form would be no different from their Champions League form. They have a core of players like Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher that you’d think would be very comfortable in both competitions."
Dowie continued: "They suffer like a lot of big clubs because every time Liverpool come to town it’s a huge game – as it will be on Saturday. We can’t worry about how they are going to play. We just have to hope that their indifferent form continues against us. Earlier in the season we were the first team to score two goals at Anfield. We were so close to getting a result. The manner of the defeat left an indelible mark on the water carrying device in front of my dugout! It was bitter for us."
Meanwhile Xabi Alonso felt the need to point out that Liverpool can manage without Steven Gerrard. Gerrard was "rested" in midweek, and may yet not play on Saturday. The injury that kept him out of the game against Juventus was a serious one though, and he did well to come back so quickly. Are Liverpool trying to hide a recurrence from Chelsea? They are certainly making it known that they are ready to manage without their captain. Said Alonso: "I feel that our performance against Juventus without Steven Gerrard proved once and for all that we are not a one man team. No team can depend on only one player to help them win trophies and we are no different, even though Stevie is one of the best players in the world."
Alonso’s displays in the matches he’s played since returning from injury perhaps make it look like Liverpool have another midfielder they’ll come to rely on. Gerrard is in the spotlight for everything he does now, and Alonso is able to play under less pressure. Xabi continued: "Our performances in this season’s Champions League have proved we have a good all round team and we have answered all those people who say we rely too much on one player."
We pointed out on this site that there were a couple of major events that happened when Liverpool won the European Cup in 1978 that have been repeated this year. Alonso’s heard about it: "I have been told that 1978 and 2005 have a number of links including the Pope passing away, Wales winning the Grand Slam and Liverpool losing the League Cup final to the eventual Champions. In 1978 it was also true that Liverpool won the European Cup. These are strange coincidences but it’s not impossible that history could repeat itself."
Liverpool also won the European Cup in 1981 – which like 2005 saw Prince Charles get married, Ken and Dierdre of Coronation Street get married and a new Doctor Who appear. That season saw Crystal Palace relegated from the top-flight.