By NEIL ASHTON, 26/09/2009
JERMAINE PENNANT is on a roll, raiding down the right wing and pinging precision balls into the box. The ex-Liverpool midfielder is living on the edge again, at full throttle after a flying start to his new career in Spain.
This is football's original bad-boy, the tearaway with enough tricks up his sleeve to slice open the smartest defences. The shackles are off at Real Zaragoza, a free spirit after three unfulfilled years at Anfield under Rafa Benitez.Pennant, still only 26, revealed: "When I was on the touchline all I could hear was Benitez giving me directions.
"At times I'd think 'why don't you just put the batteries in and turn me into a robot'."
But he is his own man again in Zaragoza, living in a plush apartment block in the centre of town and picking up Spanish tit-bits from his new team-mates. He loves the laidback lifestyle after three years of listening to Benitez barking orders."Sometimes I just wanted to play my natural game, but there were so many instructions: how to go forward, how to defend.
"He has been through so many players, so many strikers, so many midfielders that he takes the best attributes out of them.
"With Fernando Torres he backed him, told him to score goals and that is exactly what Fernando has done. With his wingers he wants them to do something different. 'Do this, do that, don't cross there'.
"He would tell me to go to the byline and beat a man, but sometimes you don't have to. I prefer to take the politics out of the game."
Pennant has no regrets, not even after leaving Liverpool with just 55 appearances to show for his hefty price tag.
To Pennant's mind, he played for the team he supported as a kid being dragged up on a Nottingham council estate.
He achieved an ambition every time he ran out for the Reds, playing for a top four team in front of 40,000 or more.
He added: "I don't have regrets - what's the point? The bad times make me appreciate the good and right now I'm having a good time. It was Benitez's choice whether to play me."He makes the decisions. Liverpool bought Dirk Kuyt as a striker and they play him right wing.
"Rafa has to play him because of the fee they paid for him. He has to justify the price, so he plays him on the right because Fernando is up front.
"Xabi Alonso is one of the best passers I have ever seen, he could pick you out from anywhere but he didn't see eye to eye with Rafa either. I never really got a run in the team. I always felt that if my game was not 100 per cent there was a chance I would not play in the next game."He rarely got the run he craved, a victim of Benitez's rotation system as the Liverpool chief searched for a title-winning team. His electrifying performance in the 2007 Champions League final against Milan is a cherished moment, a rare success during his career at the club.
Pennant added: "That was probably my best game for Liverpool, but Rafa treated me harshly when I came back from injury the following season. I didn't understand it. There are players at Liverpool and you think 'how is he getting a game?', but Rafa has faith in them. He thinks some of the players are the best thing since sliced bread.
"Rafa didn't have confidence in me. I'd play one week, then I'd be out of the team and think 'hold on a minute - last week I scored one and made two. How does that work?'
"He can be cold, but that's his style. He has a special relationship with Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher - but that's because they are Liverpool. There were times when he took offence with me because he could see how frustrated I was."I don't know the reasons, but he's won the European Cup and you can't argue with that. It kills half of Liverpool that they haven't won the league for so long. Something can't be right and they need to start looking into it quickly."
He left on loan last January, rediscovering his zest for the game during a productive six month spell with Portsmouth.
Pennant played his part at Fratton Park, helping to keep the team in the top flight.
He quit for Zaragoza, rebuilding his life in Spain - "I knew the place was somewhere between Madrid and Barcelona" - with a newly-promoted team.
The past will always follow him, but he is remarkably comfortable with the character-assassinations that have accompanied his turbulent career.
Even the mention of the 30-day jail term he served in 2005 fails to unseat him. He accepts that he will always corner the market when it comes controversy.
He added: "In England I got caught up in certain things, but I'd like to think it will be different here. Trouble seems to follow me around and I'm an easy target. People here are a bit more respectful and they leave the players alone. The manager doesn't mind if we go out in our own time and that suits."
He's been an instant hit, providing more crosses in La Liga so far this season than any other player - including Cristiano Ronaldo.But he would swap everything to play for Arsene Wenger again at Arsenal, accepting that he "lost the plot" when he lost his place in 2003.
He said: "Wenger was more relaxed than Benitez, he would give me proper advice. He would encourage me to show my skills and that is why he has done so well with young players.
"He would always tell me that I had amazing potential.
"Unfortunately, there was so much hype around me I thought I should be playing every week. When it didn't happen I got frustrated and lost the plot."
Pennant's immediate ambition is to do well enough in Spain to force his way into Fabio Capello's World Cup squad. The countdown to South Africa is well under way, but Pennant is convinced that he can still pinch a place on the plane.
He added: "The ambition is to get into the World Cup squad. I've never been named in a squad, but I've never given up hope. Capello has twice been a manager out here and if he comes to Spain he's only coming to watch one player.
"Ian Wright got into the England team when he was 26 or 27 and I know it can be done.
"My assets are pace, going past players and crossing. I don't think anyone in that squad crosses the ball as well as me."
He's right, and even a robot couldn't be programmed to do that.http://liverpoolfc.co.za/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/1126051643/m/351108294
Pennant is sill bitter. I wish him all the best in Real Zaragoza and hope he doesn't ruin it there too.