So, the inevitable has come to pass. Rafael Benitez, Champions League winner turned stay-at-home blogging whizz, has found a job again after two years in the proverbial wilderness. Not just any job, either. Never one to stray from the path of blind ambition, Benitez accepted the very epitome of a poisoned chalice: the Chelsea manager position.
Given the sort of poorly disguised disdain he showed for Chelsea when he was last plying his trade on English shores, it’s an unusual fit. Fans of the south London side have been quick to go on the offensive; brandishing ‘Rafa out’ protest signs printed on A4 pages, fully utilising the formatting tools of Microsoft Word, and singing the praises of sacked former manager Roberto Di Matteo at every opportunity.
I know what you’re thinking. Is Rafa mad? Quite possibly, as previous outbursts would have you imagine. It’s arguably the most unstable job in football and with the supporters against him from the outset, he certainly has a challenge on his hands. That’s not to mention winning the trust and the backing of the notoriously temperamental Roman Abramovich. Then again, Benitez is no stranger to a power struggle, having found himself embroiled in a duel with his superiors in nearly all of his previous high-profile jobs.
The Spaniard bided his time for two years in search of ‘the right job’, turning down Sampdoria and reportedly Aston Villa, so one would have to wonder what makes Chelsea and its myriad of squad and management debacles the club that coaxed the manager away from the relative peace and quiet of unemployment, and the occasional conference appearance. The lucrative pay packet may have done much of the swaying, of course.
Just a few months ago, Benitez emphasised that he was looking for “a club that can match my desire, my expectations to challenge for trophies”. Undoubtedly, Chelsea have just that; a club in the upper echelons of Benitez’s beloved Premier League, with cash to burn and an owner so obsessed with winning that he has sacked nine managers in as many years.
Besides, considering he is used to dysfunctional financiers, Abramovich will be nothing he hasn’t faced before. In fact, Benitez has gone as far to say that working under the Russian will be ‘easier’ than dealing with Texan cowboys Tom Hicks and George Gillett at Liverpool.
Whatever the outcome, Benitez is going where many others have gone before and failed. So too, however, is Abramovich, as the men who worked over the manager at Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan’s will testify.
Rafael Benitez, for all his widely reported failings, was the last to achieve what in today’s world seems nigh-impossible; breaking the Real Madrid/Barcelona stranglehold over Spain’s domestic league. With Valencia between 2001 and 2004, Benitez won La Liga twice and the Europa League’s old incarnation, the UEFA Cup. The reputation he earned at the club would form the basis for his 2004 switch to Merseyside, but he didn’t part with Valencia on particularly good terms even despite his success.
His main gripe with Valencia’s then sporting director, Jesus Garcia Pitarch, was over control of the club’s transfer activity and his failure to acquire the players Benitez had asked for. He said in reference to the signing of Uruguayan midfielder Fabián Cannobbio, when Benitez wanted a defender.
I was hoping for a sofa and they’ve brought me a lamp.
That particular soundbite would prove to sum up much of Benitez’s later career, with the atmosphere at Liverpool and Inter Milan under his reign also souring over the tricky issue of transfers.
Valencia fans would go on to blame Pitarch for Benitez’s departure, and upon leaving the club behind the Spaniard described the season’s events as having ‘undermined his morale’. At Valencia, he had little responsibility for transfers, something that would go on to change dramatically at Liverpool, but Benitez was not out of the woods just yet.
At the beginning, Liverpool and Benitez seemed a match made in heaven. Despite a less than sparkling Premier League campaign, adding a fifth Champions League trophy to the club’s collection more than softened the blow. Within a year, he was a hero among fans and he took the club to a second Champions League final in 2007, only to fall to the same team he had miraculously triumphed over two years previously.
Of course, it was not all plain sailing, and by the time Benitez left Merseyside in 2010 following a disappointing season, little remained of the legacy he had set down. Many would criticise his transfers, his apparent lack of man management skills and the moment he delivered a carefully worded rant about Sir Alex Ferguson’s supposed special treatment.
The 52-year-old, however, would go on to place much of the blame for the club’s spontaneous combustion on its American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, with whom Rafa had a difficult relationship. When the pair took over at Liverpool, they spoke highly of the manager, but they soon butted heads.
In his tell-all autobiography, Rafa spoke of how he had become more of a ‘bank manager’ than a coach, juggling the needs of the squad with Liverpool’s enormous debt. Not only did Benitez have to deal with the financial strain Hicks and Gillett’s regime imposed on the club, he also had to deal with their squabbles.
If you have two bosses who aren’t talking to each other, it’s difficult. You want a striker and one of them says, ‘I don’t know’.
Hicks lashed out at the former Liverpool manager soon after he and Gillett were forced to sell the club to current owners, Fenway Sports Group: “Rafa lost the club. We didn’t finish at the top – that’s not the fault of the owners, we spent good money. Rafa has to take accountability for his own results.”
Despite his fall from grace with Liverpool, Inter Milan came calling for the Champions League winner shortly after José Mourinho’s move to Real Madrid. Big shoes to fill, indeed, and Benitez never really escaped from Mourinho’s shadow. He endured a torrid start in Italy, losing the UEFA Super Cup to Atletico Madrid, and though he was victorious against Roma in the Italian Super Coppa, a run of poor Serie A and Champions League results suggested that he wouldn’t last much longer at the San Siro.
After winning the FIFA Club World Cup in December, Rafa demanded more support from Inter’s owners, particularly in relation to the upcoming transfer window. He compared his treatment with his predecessor’s, singling out Inter owner Massimo Moratti for particular criticism.
Last year, Moratti spent €80 million on five players, but this year he has spent nothing for me.
Moratti was unimpressed by Benitez’s show of defiance, and the Spaniard was axed later that month. Moratti described it is the final straw and was quoted as saying that “the split had now become inevitable”. Evaluating his dismissal some time later, Rafa was less than complimentary of the Italian: “Moratti is someone who makes a lot of mistakes, possibly too many. It’s no coincidence there were another three coaches after me.”
With all his history of locking horns with those pulling the purse strings, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether Benitez is crazy to take up the Chelsea challenge, and moreover, that Abramovich is crazy to let him. Chelsea fans certainly seem to disagree with the appointment.
Not only will he be working under a technical director, Michael Emanelo, but he will also have a far more limited input on transfers than ever before. By all accounts, the Chelsea slot is not ideal, but time out of the game appears to have given the manager a fresh perspective. As he himself put it this week, he has a ‘different vision’. Perhaps it’s about time he reigned in his expectations.
So far, his fortunes as Di Matteo’s interim replacement have been mixed. His Stamford Bridge dugout debut was marred by deafening negativity from the home support and a scoreless stalemate with direct competitors Manchester City. His side have yet to score, even in a second home fixture last night against Fulham, which also ended nil-all. As of yet, there is little evidence to the suggestion that he might be the man to help Fernando Torres rediscover the form he once showed under Benitez at Liverpool.
He has six months to turn his and Chelsea’s luck around, and if he expected patience he is probably in the wrong place. Nevertheless, somehow it feels as if this is a different Benitez, and only time will tell if this less bullish, more pliable incarnation of the Spaniard can bring a semblance of stability to a club that doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
Amy Eustace is sports editor at UCD’s College Tribune. Follow Amy on Twitter here.