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Published: 22 May 2007

There are quite a number of reasons to admire, even love Rafa Benitez. In the snakepit occupied by so many overstated and under-principled football managers, in all the hot and often stagnant air and the cold spirit, he is mostly a model of decorum and, even more importantly, decency.

His status in Merseyside football lore is already for the ages. However, if it should happen that he delivers a second Champions League triumph for Liverpool over Milan, in Athens tomorrow night, delight in this quarter, if we are honest, will not be without a few complications.

This will have nothing do with Rafa the man or the motivator. When his team won in such extraordinary, even surreal circumstances in Istanbul two years ago he handled the glory with beguiling modesty.

Unlike that of the most conspicuous victim of his almost eerie ability to neutralise the strength of the most powerful of opposition, Jose Mourinho, Benitez's reaction to the greatest moment of his career included no attempt to deflect attention from the heroics of his players.

In the post-match dawn he stood away from the microphones and the television cameras, a small, benign smile lighting up his broadly open features as the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Xabi Alonso fondled the gold winning medals dangling around their chests.

The cynical might say that it was reality as much as good character which dictated such exemplary behaviour, Liverpool's victory flowing not from a tactical masterplan but an outpouring of physical and emotional strength from the players which could not have been created by even the most brilliant work on the dressing-room blackboard.

However, Benitez wouldn't have been the first coach to cheerfully ride on the fighting instincts of players breaking out of a limited gameplan.

No, the problem has nothing to do with any aspect of Rafa's nature. The trouble is his football. It is not the kind which, beyond admiration for superbly genuine competitive honesty, a not exactly ubiquitous quality in the upper reaches of the game, could possibly lift the soul of a neutral.

If Jorge Valdano's crude assessment that Liverpool's semi-final triumph over Chelsea represented not the beautiful game but "shit on a stick" was excessive, no one could deny that the former football director of Real Madrid had touched on an element of truth. Excrement it wasn't, but nor was it the work of Van Gogh or Cezanne.

The unavoidable fact about Benitez - and one that makes matchwood of one recent assertion that if he delivers a second European Cup in three years, from a standing start in the wake of Gérard Houllier's moribund reign, he is an immediate contender, or better, for the status of greatest manager in the history of British football - is that he puts such a low priority on the ability of outstanding individuals to shape a game.

This was the thrust of Valdano's criticism and, whatever you think of his way with words, there is no question he is a witness of some authority. Few former players on earth are better acquainted with the value of a player free to follow, more than any word from the touchline, his own gut instincts. Valdano scored one of the goals that helped deliver the 1986 World Cup to Argentina. He was also permitted a close-up view of Diego Maradona's last touch in his campaign of bewildering force and virtuosity. It was the lacerating pass which finally demolished West Germany's elaborate plan to have Lothar Matthäus mark Maradona out of the game.

Such individual inventiveness, Valdano argues, is not a key part of the game of Benitez, or Mourinho, and the reason for this, he further suggests, is because neither coach reached the upper levels of the game as players. It is a shaky theory when you consider that Arsène Wenger, the author of some of the most beautiful football ever seen in these islands, also failed to get beyond the foothills as a player.

Yet, still, Valdano hits a nerve in any ultimate assessment of Benitez the coach who has produced such brilliant results in the Spanish League and the knock-out tournaments of England and Europe. In that creatively wretched semi-final against Chelsea at Anfield, Benitez chose to leave out Alonso, a player of infinite ambition and lovely touch in his passing when he first arrived at Anfield.

That surely was a statement that the Liverpool effort would be most vitally concerned with stifling Chelsea. That it worked, via the shoot-out, finally brought unconditional joy to Anfield but there were many doubts expressed on the way to the right result.

At Valencia, Benitez also had a habit of benching one of the local heroes, the beautifully talented Argentine Pablo Aimar. Valencia enjoyed fiestas when two league titles were snatched from the jaws of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but the manner of the triumphs lacked a certain flamenco snap.

If the right result comes in Athens, the odds are that the fine points of Liverpool's performance will be relegated to the margins of celebration - and Benitez will have encouraged still more sweeping assessment of his place in the game. No doubt he will again react to the acclaim with his trademark humility, and that will be still another reason for applause.

There should, though, be no loose talk of the greatest achievement ever by a British club in Europe. That is a place in history which, for all the achievements of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Brian Clough, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, still belongs to Jock Stein.

When the Celtic manager took his team to Lisbon to break down the "bolted door" of Helenio Herrera's Internazionale in 1967, he declared that his deepest ambition was a victory for football, something to thrill every neutral. He felt he owed that much to the game and he produced his extraordinary gift with 11 players bred in a 20-mile radius of Glasgow.

It would not be Rafa Benitez's style to make such a promise. There are a number of reasons for this. Some of them are good. One of them is bad. It is the fact that nothing in his football would give any weight to such an undertaking.

At critical moments, Stein reached for the stars; Benitez from time to time benches his most creative players. Don't mention it on Merseyside, but, putting aside all the moral questions about whether they should even have been competing in the Champions League this season, a win for the Milan of Kaka and Maldini and Seedorf will also be one for football - as it should be played. Hand on heart, you can say a lot in favour of Rafa - but of his football, not that, not yet.

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