Istanbul miracle outshines Benitez's failures

By Mike Collett

LONDON (Reuters) - Rafa Benitez, whose reign as Liverpool manager ended on Thursday, will always be remembered on Merseyside for winning the Champions League in 2005 at the end of his first season at Anfield.

He boosted his status with Liverpool fans a year later when Liverpool beat West Ham United in the FA Cup final.

The problem for Benitez, though, was that the glory days were already over.

The arrival of the club's new owners, Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett in 2007 three months before the second Champions League final against Milan, began a long period of uncertainty between Benitez and the board, who he publicly criticized for a lack of support.

Their courting of Juergen Klinsmann, the former Germany coach to replace him in November 2007, did nothing for the inner harmony at Anfield, but Benitez saw off the threat and revealed some of his own inner steel.

"I cannot control everything," he said after the approach to Klinsmann became public. "I would rather concentrate my efforts on getting the best out of the players. I have been a manager for 21 years. That has helped me learn to cope with things like this. It has helped me realize there is no problem with my ability, just as there is no doubt about the quality of our squad."

RESTRICTED BUDGET

Although he was able to spend a total of 249.0 million pounds ($367 million) on new players and recoup 139 million in sales, his transfer budget became more and more restricted as Liverpool became burdened with debts which now total around 350 million pounds.

Although Liverpool finished fourth in the Premier League in 2008 and were runners-up to Manchester United in 2009, Benitez never seemed close to bringing Liverpool's most cherished prize back to Anfield for the first time since 1990.

He also began to appear under pressure, culminating in the famous "Rafa rant" in January 2009 when he read a list of "facts" about Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson at one of his weekly media briefings.

But the departure of the irreplaceable Xabi Alonso, who left Liverpool for Real Madrid a year ago, seriously unbalanced the side.

They made a poor start to the season, never recovered, and failed to make any impact in the Champions League or in either of the domestic trophies.

Their eventual seventh-place finish was their worst since 1999, left them out of the Champions League for next season, and leaves the Liverpool board facing something of a dilemma.

The club is currently up for sale and has an aging squad that needs overhauling, although the new manager's budget for players is likely to be as restricted as Benitez's was.

Benitez's star has burned brightly in his first few seasons at Anfield, and then flickered briefly again before fizzling out last season.

(Editing by John Mehaffey)