Benitez's Liverpool love affair rekindled ahead of Anfield return

The Chelsea boss is likely to receive a warm reception on Sunday as he heads back to face the Kop for the first time since his 2010 departure from the Merseyside club
By David Lynch

Sunday's meeting between Liverpool and Chelsea could provide an unusual first in English football thanks to Rafa Benitez's presence. It is unlikely that a visiting manager has ever before received abuse from his own fans whilst simultaneously being showered with adoration by the home crowd - yet this is the likely scenario awaiting the Spaniard at Anfield.

The love which ties Benitez to the Merseyside club is set to be rekindled in L4; the bonds forged during that oft-recounted 2005 Champions League run on show once again.

Of course, the attachment between Reds fans and Benitez is not solely based on 'the miracle of Istanbul' or the run of European victories which preceded it. His six-year stint at Anfield provided trophies and tales of success across England and the continent the likes of which had not been seen since Liverpool's glory days.

Benitez's Liverpool trophies
Champions League
Uefa Super Cup
Community Shield
FA Cup
Unerring adulation from the stands followed as a result, with the regular parading of a framed photo of the man himself dubbed "the Rafatollah" perhaps its most inventive manifestation. This idolatry led Benitez to remark: "I feel as if with Liverpool I have found the love of my life" - and it was quite apparent that this was a reciprocal affection.

The relationship could even have sealed its status as the perfect union had Liverpool secured the Premier League title at the denouement of the 2008-09 season but narrow defeat to Manchester United in that race had devastating consequences the following year. Benitez's squad, weakened by the sale of Xabi Alonso and an inevitable hangover from the previous campaign, slumped to seventh place - a result which would cost the Madrid-born boss his job.

Both parties tried to hide their grief at the time but, like with all whirlwind romances, mixed emotions reigned. The £96,000 donation made by Benitez to the Hillsborough Family Support Group - £1,000 for each of the 96 victims - following a departure viewed as necessary by a sizeable section of fans only pointed to what the club had lost.

Liverpool is a complex beast but, as many supporters remarked at the time, Benitez 'gets it'.

The Reds have never been the same since, with a solitary League Cup success and a string of disappointing top-flight finishes to show for three subsequent managers. And it is perhaps no coincidence that Benitez has found life similarly difficult since breaking ties with his first love, with a disastrous spell at Inter his sole permanent appointment.

11/1 Liverpool are 11/1 with Bet365 to draw 2-2 with Chelsea
Following Chelsea's failure to get past Manchester City in the FA Cup on Sunday, the success of the Spaniard's interim stint at Stamford Bridge now hangs on the club's chase for a top-four finish and Europa League honours. However, this indifferent spell does not seem to have quenched the desire for Benitez to return from his admirers on Merseyside.

It must be noted that, bizarrely, this insatiable pining for the good old days does not exclude Brendan Rodgers from being widely liked by the club's supporters. The Northern Irishman is viewed as a young manager whose undeniable enthusiasm and attractive brand of football could take Liverpool forward, even if he now cannot match the instant impact enjoyed by the man held up as the standard for modern Reds managers.

Regardless, Benitez's recent declaration that he "will return, almost certainly" to Anfield has done little to quell criticism of his obsession with his former employers and has arguably made Rodgers's job that bit harder. The supporters, meanwhile, will doubtless be thankful that their delight at the news can be kept hidden from such external appraisal and the managerial incumbent with whom they are attempting to familiarise themselves.

It could be argued that such an unhealthy mutual infatuation can only end with the passing of time but it is hard to believe that either Liverpool or Benitez will ever move on until both have found success elsewhere.

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