Has Rafa Benitez had some sort of footballing epiphany? After 5 years of domestic form ranging from the insipid to the inconsistent, Liverpool spent the early weeks of this year squandering a valuable lead over Manchester United in the Premiership. After defeat to Middlesborough on the final day of February, it looked all over, Man. Utd 7 points in front with a game in hand.
Then something happened. Despite defeating Real Madrid by a single goal in the first leg of their Champions' League encounter, Benitez was criticised in the Spanish press for his team's excessively cautious and boring style of play. Since then, the results have gone:
10/03: Liverpool 4 Real Madrid 0
14/03: Man. Utd 1 Liverpool 4
22/03: Liverpool 5 Aston Villa 0
The speed, power and dexterity of the play against Real Madrid was electrifying, the most impressive Liverpool performance since the days of Roy Evans, and perhaps even since the days of Dalglish. Liverpool simply devastated the most famous team in the world.
Then, last Saturday, Liverpool adjusted to cope with the pre-match loss of two key players, came back from conceding an early goal, and proceeded to thoroughly humiliate Manchester United at Old Trafford: "Ferguson, standing on the touchline in a coat reminiscent of Michael Foot, had the legs cut from under him and took to twitching from a seat in the dugout," whilst Wayne Rooney was reduced to an arm-whirling figure of anger and despair.
Things didn't go well for Wayne this weekend either, and it may be that his head will literally explode with anger, live on TV, at some stage between now and the end of the season.
Liverpool routed Aston Villa today to move to within 1 point of Man. Utd, and for the first time, Rafa Benitez now appears to be capable of winning the Premiership. Whether or not it really was the criticism in the Spanish media which did it, it seems that Benitez has suddenly grasped the fact that you need to play attacking, and often direct, football to win the Premiership.
It's been a long time coming, Rafa, but long may it continue.