Benitez repeats Istanbul tactics to thwart United
At half-time during the 2005 Champions League final, Rafael Benitez made his most impressive, and memorable, tactical decision in his time as Liverpool manager.
With his side losing 3-0 and being humiliated by a rampant AC Milan side, Benitez replaced right-back Steve Finnan with holding midfielder Didi Hamann. This decision changed the shape of the team, and the key behind it was that it gave Steven Gerrard the license to play a free role.
Gerrard was a different player with Hamann on the pitch, inspiring his side to the most miraculous victory in the history of the European football.
Fast forward nearly eight years and Benitez, now in a far more unforgiving role as Chelsea interim manager, saw his side in a similar predicament to Liverpool, with the West Londoners trailing 2-0 to a smarting Manchester United side.
After the injustice of Nani’s sending off against Real Madrid, many predicted that Chelsea would be on the wrong end of a hiding against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, who are famous for responding after a disappointing result. Early goals from Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney looked to have won the game but as the second half got under underway, Benitez had other ideas.
In the 52nd minute, Victor Moses was replaced by Eden Hazard in a like-for-like substitution, but the key decision was replacing Frank Lampard with Jon Obi Mikel.
Social media websites went into overdrive with Chelsea fans berating Benitez for replacing one of their favourite sons with a more negative midfielder, but the Spaniard knew exactly what he was doing.
Mikel’s introduction meant that Ramires, the all-action Brazilian, was released from his shackles just like Gerrard eight years previously, and the side had a completely different look to it.
Lampard is undoubtedly one of the Chelsea’s best players over the last 20 years, but he can often be a disruption to the shape of a side. The likes of Gerrard, Michael Ballack and Paul Scholes have all struggled to play alongside him, and his withdrawal changed the entire complexion of the game.
From that substitution onwards, Chelsea played United off the park on their patch, which is a very rare occurrence over the the last 10 to 15 years. Hazard, Ramires and the exceptional Juan Mata ran the show, with Mikel doing his job brilliantly behind them.
Firstly, just six minutes after entering the field, Hazard’s superb curled effort bought his side back in the game, before a slick counter-attack led to Ramires coolly stroking the ball home, after a typically lung-busting run in the 67th minute.
By the end of the game, Chelsea were right to feel slightly aggrieved that they didn’t win the game, with David De Gea producing a magnificent save to deny Mata at the death.
After the game, Chelsea fans everywhere should’ve felt very embarrassed at the abuse they were giving their manager when he brought off Lampard, and it’s funny how few of them were willing to accept they were wrong and actually give Benitez credit for once.
It is understandable why his appointment was not a popular one, given his history with Liverpool, but the way they have treated him has been an absolute disgrace.
Although seen as a laughing stock with some fans, for some strange reason, Benitez proved again yesterday that he is a top class coach. While his detractors always use his spell as Inter Milan boss as a reason to mock him, the truth is that he was managing an ageing side who had just won the Champions League and had lost their hunger.
Ignoring that spell, he won La Liga twice in three years with Valencia, in a league containing the excellent Barcelona and Real Madrid sides, and he turned Liverpool from a top six side to a team that very nearly won the Premier League in 2009, making them one of Europe’s most respected sides along the way.
His final year at Anfield was a mess made by Tom Hicks and George Gillett, but he is still held in great regard by many Liverpool fans.
While Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Old Trafford wasn’t quite Istanbul, it was another brilliant tactical switch by a manager who deserves more respect than he is currently getting.
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