By Arun Nair – (@Nair_39)
Today sees the return of one Rafa Benítez to the Anfield dugout. Not as manager of the home side, but that of the visitors; the despised Chelsea ‘You Ain’t Got No History’ Football Club. The Spaniard committed what would have been considered base treachery in becoming the Blues’ manager in mid-November, if not for his legendary status among the majority of the Anfield faithful(although admittedly, this did not spare Fernando Torres from going from unanimously loved to widely loathed following his infamous £50million move).
Thanks to a historic Champions League victory featuring a comeback of epic proportions, an FA Cup triumph in similarly dramatic circumstances and countless magical European nights that will live long in the memory, Benítez has secured himself an eternal place in Kopites’ hearts.
Those Kopites will afford their returning hero a raucous reception. It doesn’t matter that the tie around his neck is blue, not when he is, emotionally, securely tied to the Reds. Always the professional, Benítez may raise a hand in acknowledgement, but his mind will be focussed on the job at hand – a vital match in his current side’s attempts to ensure Champions League football.
His intentions were clear from the moment the subject was breached following Chelsea’s 3-0 win at Fulham in midweek:
“I have a lot of friends and memories from my time at Liverpool but I’ll try to concentrate on the game,” he said.
“You need to use your common sense. I am committed to Chelsea and to achieving our targets.”
Meanwhile, the Reds’ current manager, Brendan Rodgers will stand in the background and wonder when, and how, he will be able to invoke such adulation from his club’s fervent support.
He is not yet afforded the reverence that Benítez receives. There may come a time in the future when Rodgers’ is considered in the same light as the Spaniard, but there is a lot of work to be done in the present.
The task set before him is unenviable; a rebuilding job akin to the one the legendary former Reds manager Bill Shankly successfully undertook. But the similarities between Rodgers and his illustrious, messianic predecessor should end there.
But this is Liverpool, whose fans desire more than just their manager to do well, but look for a character worthy of their emotional investment. The faithful want someone not just to put their faith in, but someone to worship.
And worship they have, generally. This is by no means a bad thing, or at least not for those who receive such enthusiastic glorification, like Benítez. He will receive the adoration of the Kop, despite his position in the opposing dugout, and there are those who deify him and still desperately cling onto their hopes of his return, further fuelled by the Spaniard’s recent comments describing such a comeback in the future as an “almost certainty.”
However, it is why Rodgers is by no means greeted in that way so often nor so enthusiastically; there has been precious little to worship in his first season, one of transition, at the club. It is not necessarily his fault, seeing as in comparison to Benítez, he had no Champions League to win and inherited a squad inferior to that Gérard Houllier left behind, nor is it truly significant; it merely serves to illustrate the status he must battle against.
Ironically, it is also the status he so desperately craves to achieve.
Rodgers is not bereft of confidence, but he soon discovered that not only was he meant to halt the decline and forge a successful future for the club, but manage the burdens of its past in addition. After taking the reins from the acclaimed king Kenny Dalglish, now stands Benitez.
He will stand at Anfield today, and will be cheered emphatically. Those cheers are not suggesting an imminent revolt against Rodgers, nor a lack of belief in his ‘project’ of leading Liverpool back to those glory days. The majority retain confidence in Rodgers, although several of his signings, such as Joe Allen and Fabio Borini have done little to inspire it, while results have only gradually improved, with inconsistency and profligacy continuing to be an occasional plague.
But the unfortunate truth is this match is hardly about Rodgers. He has very much been forgotten, an insignificant sub-plot to Benítez’ climactic return. Herein lies one of Rodgers’ major problems since taking over as Liverpool manager, ever since he first stepped into a Melwood complex steeped in burdening history. This is a young, inexperienced manager still finding his own identity, given the task of reaffirming the identity of a globally recognised institution on the decline.
Rodgers should not stand forgotten. It is he who has been given the responsibility of returning the Reds to their long vacated position at the summit of English and European football. Not Benítez. Nor anyone else. Rodgers is the one who has been chosen.
So, yes, allow Benítez the reception he deserves after his exploits as Liverpool manager. But do not forget that he is a figure of the past, no longer the man in charge at Anfield. Rodgers is that man, and so when the whistle blows at kick off today, the support of the Anfield faithful should be well and truly behind him.
We cannot allow Rodgers to be forced to walk alone.