Nothing funny or clever about Benitez’s treatment of Keane

THEY like a joke in Liverpool. And now football has given them one. It is called the Robbie Keane saga.

What a wonderful day ladies and gentleman. What a time to fork out £20 million (€22m), buy a centre forward, leave him on the bench each week and say: How’s that for a striker with no matches?

That might be the Ken Dodd way of viewing how Keane has been shuttled between pitch and bench and stand and reserves in what is rapidly turning into one of football’s most traumatic career moves.

They say the best jokes tread a fine line between humour and tragedy and while a footballer on close to £100,000 (€110,000) a week hardly falls into the latter category, especially in the midst of a recession, then you could still understand if it feels that way to Keane.

What has Keane done wrong to attract such treatment?

As far as I can see every time he has pulled on the famous red shirt he has worked tirelessly. Often he has made things happen.

True, he has not scored many goals, just five in 17 Premier League appearances since his move from Tottenham, but is that surprising when his confidence has been shredded by Benitez at every turn?

If he starts he is hooked off within the hour, having run defenders ragged only to allow those who follow him to reap the benefit of his labours.

If he comes on from the bench, invariably he has no more than 10 minutes, seven against Wigan on Wednesday, to make an impact.

Mostly, however, he has been left sitting, as he was in the Merseyside FA Cup derby last weekend when three substitutes were used before him. Redundant.

For a €22m asset to be rejected in such fashion there has to be some serious antipathy between manager and player.

It is almost as if Benitez is saying: “I never wanted him. I don’t think he was worth the money. I’m not going to play him. Why did you not get me Gareth Barry instead?”

The inability to land Barry in the summer is a sore which continues to fester at Anfield. It is said to be one reason for the reported friction between chief executive Rick Parry and Benitez, who apparently believes Liverpool’s administrators were too slow and too mean in trying to clinch a deal for the Aston Villa midfielder.

There is no doubt it has affected the balance of Liverpool’s team, considering Benitez’s original plan appeared to be to play Barry on the left, Steven Gerrard in the middle and Keane in the hole behind the main striker.

Without Barry, Gerrard has been pushed up to assist the striker and has performed well, scoring nine league goals.

But the price has been high. The price has been the systematic dismantling of the confidence of one of the most dynamic and enthusiastic strikers in the English game.

A former England midfielder who once played alongside Keane told me this week of his bemusement at Keane’s treatment.

He described a goalscorer who was, and he used the pun inadvertently, “the keenest footballer he had ever met,” a leader who “rollicked team-mates” who slacked in training and told it as it was on the pitch and in the dressing room. A man to lift the spirits of an entire club. A man every manager would want on his side.

Except apparently Rafael Benitez.

The Liverpool boss has made some rickets this past couple of months in which the team have drawn seven out of 10 league matches and slipped to third place, none worse than his ill-considered rant against Alex Ferguson. Liverpool have not won a game since that ludicrous soliloquy which history might yet record as a suicide note for their title hopes.

Yet, worse by far, is the way he has handled Keane, an honest, decent, model professional who might as well have been cast in bronze and placed at the Anfield gates for all the chance he has been given these last few weeks.

At least fans could have walked around him and admired the art.

All they have at the moment is football’s sickest joke.

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