Yossi Benayoun (Excerpt from Above Us Only Sky, 2007)

Yossi Benayoun (Excerpt from Above Us Only Sky, 2007)
June 8, 2009 Paul Tomkins

Yossi Benayoun’s arrival at Liverpool could be seen as something of a good omen. A £5m signing from West Ham, he became the third Israeli to join the Reds, following Avi Cohen and Ronny Rosenthal, both of whom won the league title in their time at the club. Indeed, Rosenthal had an incredible impact after arriving in late March 1990, scoring seven goals in eight league games in helping the Reds finish strongly to see off Aston Villa for the championship.

Benayoun impressed Benítez in La Liga when at Racing Santander –– a somewhat unfashionable Spanish club. Arriving in England 12 months after the Liverpool manager, the attacking midfielder enjoyed a superb first season in English football. It ended with the Israeli as one of the stars of the FA Cup Final, overshadowed only by Steven Gerrard, whose two goals, sumptuous assist and penalty success stole the headlines and cup from the Hammers and Benayoun.

Upon his signing, some Liverpool fans suggested Benayoun was not as good as Luis García, the man he effectively replaced in the squad, but the Israeli’s record in the top Spanish division, in a weaker team, was arguably more impressive than the departing no.10’s.

Also, Benayoun was only 21/22 at that time, and fresh from Israel. And before West Ham’s myriad troubles in 2006/07, which could be seen as extenuating circumstances, he had proved he could more than cut it in the more physical English game, winning rave reviews and being courted by Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. Of course, Luis García himself split the fans, between those who loved his game-winning ability and those who lamented what they saw as his sloppiness in possession.

Benayoun had begun making waves in Israeli football circles by the age of 11, and become a national celebrity by 13. At 15 he was snapped up by Ajax, recent European Champions, where he became the star player and top scorer in the youth team. As a result, he was offered a four-year professional contract. But Benayoun failed to settle in Holland, and within a year had returned to his homeland, where he would remain until his national service was complete at 21.

It’s fair to say that Benayoun is a ‘footballer’s footballer’. He’s not overly flashy, and has a low SOR (Step-Over Ratio). He hasn’t played for fashionable clubs or a major nation, and as such will never be a worldwide superstar.

But he really understands how to do those classic Liverpool-like things: find space, pass and move, and play with intelligence. He’s a team player, who should prove comfortable taking part in the fast, passing football that helps to unlock defences. Closer to a Ray Houghton than a John Barnes, he has a lot to offer, as seen against Toulouse, when he put in a fine performance topped with a canny through-ball to Kuyt for the fourth goal.

His problem will be getting a regular game on the right-hand side of midfield, where Jermaine Pennant began to really impress in the second half of the 2006/07, and where Steven Gerrard and Ryan Babel can also be utilised.

Benayoun will need to show a lot of character to keep his form when in and out of the side, as it will take exceptional performances to come as close to cementing a place as anyone can get under Benítez. But the Israeli is also a player who can cut infield from the left, or play as the second striker, so he’s not hamstrung by a lack of versatility.

Above Us Only Sky was not reprinted, despite demand, following behind-the-scenes developments at the club shortly after its initial release.

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