Liverpool FC coach Rafael Benítez believes he has his very own 'Galáctico' in Steven Gerrard.
By Adrian Clarke and Claire Nash
Convincing Steven Gerrard to stay at Liverpool FC may prove the best bit of business Rafael Benítez has ever done. It cost the Anfield manager the price of a plane ticket to Portugal, yet had his speedily-arranged UEFA EURO 2004™ summit failed, the consequences could have been dire.
Two months on, Benítez enters tonight's UEFA Champions League game against Grazer AK knowing a place in the group stage is within Liverpool's grasp - thanks to the midfield talisman he likens to Zinedine Zidane.
Such is the impression Gerrard has made on Benítez, who replaced Gérard Houllier in June, that he is already putting him on a par with Real Madrid CF's 'Galáctico'. In addition, following Michael Owen's €12m departure for Madrid, the coach believes Liverpool will rely more than ever on their 24-year-old captain for inspiration this season.
Best of the best
The former Valencia CF trainer told uefa.com: "Steven Gerrard is, and will continue to be, the most important player in my team this year. Gerrard is on the same level as the very best. He doesn't have to envy any other midfielder in the world. The only difference between him and the likes of David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane is the hype and attention they are given in the media. He is a footballer of the highest order."
Gerrard struck a spectacular brace in the 2-0 third qualifying round first-leg win at GAK two weeks ago - the kind of form which has since illuminated Liverpool's start to the English season. Gerrard's driving performance in a 1-1 draw at Tottenham Hotspur FC was followed by a goal in Saturday's 2-1 victory against Manchester City FC - and a man-of-the-match display in England's friendly against Ukraine.
"It was very difficult for me to sell Michael Owen because I did not want to lose him," said Benítez. "No matter how hard I tried, I could not do anything to tie him to a new contract, and then of course Real Madrid knocked on his door.
"But I am not worried that selling Michael will put more pressure on my shoulders," continued the Spaniard. "He was an important player for Liverpool, but over the last few months I have seen with my own eyes that Gerrard is a real hero for the fans. In him, I hope the fans have a hero they can support for many years to come."
Having negotiated his first major hurdles off the pitch, Benítez is relishing pitting his wits against the best managers in the Premiership and Europe, ideally following up his Spanish league/UEFA Cup double with Valencia with further honours.
"I prefer to play well and win, but that is not always possible," the 44-year-old said. "I want to win every match we play and fight for every available trophy. Success is all that matters. Yes, I like my team to score a lot of goals, but I also want them to concede as few as possible. We have to work towards that and then success will come.
"As a manager, I think I am on the same level as [Arsène] Wenger, [José] Mourinho and [Sir Alex] Ferguson but only time will tell if I can prove that. I think all managers have to rely on the players they work with, and they depend on them more than they realise at times. But I am happy because I believe I have the best players and I know I can place my trust in them."