Last updated : 22 May 2007 By editor

James Lawton in the Independent

'There are quite a number of reasons to admire, even love Rafa Benitez. In the snakepit occupied by so many overstated and under-principled football managers, in all the hot and often stagnant air and the cold spirit, he is mostly a model of decorum and, even more importantly, decency.

'His status in Merseyside football lore is already for the ages. However, if it should happen that he delivers a second Champions League triumph for Liverpool over Milan, in Athens tomorrow night, delight in this quarter, if we are honest, will not be without a few complications.

'No, the problem has nothing to do with any aspect of Rafa's nature. The trouble is his football. It is not the kind which, beyond admiration for superbly genuine competitive honesty, a not exactly ubiquitous quality in the upper reaches of the game, could possibly lift the soul of a neutral.

'If Jorge Valdano's crude assessment that Liverpool's semi-final triumph over Chelsea represented not the beautiful game but "shit on a stick" was excessive, no one could deny that the former football director of Real Madrid had touched on an element of truth. Excrement it wasn't, but nor was it the work of Van Gogh or Cezanne.

'The unavoidable fact about Benitez - and one that makes matchwood of one recent assertion that if he delivers a second European Cup in three years, from a standing start in the wake of Gérard Houllier's moribund reign, he is an immediate contender, or better, for the status of greatest manager in the history of British football - is that he puts such a low priority on the ability of outstanding individuals to shape a game.

'There should, though, be no loose talk of the greatest achievement ever by a British club in Europe. That is a place in history which, for all the achievements of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Brian Clough, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, still belongs to Jock Stein.

'When the Celtic manager took his team to Lisbon to break down the "bolted door" of Helenio Herrera's Internazionale in 1967, he declared that his deepest ambition was a victory for football, something to thrill every neutral. He felt he owed that much to the game and he produced his extraordinary gift with 11 players bred in a 20-mile radius of Glasgow.

'At critical moments, Stein reached for the stars; Benitez from time to time benches his most creative players. Don't mention it on Merseyside, but, putting aside all the moral questions about whether they should even have been competing in the Champions League this season, a win for the Milan of Kaka and Maldini and Seedorf will also be one for football - as it should be played. Hand on heart, you can say a lot in favour of Rafa - but of his football, not that, not yet.'