By David Lynch
It is unusual for a mid-season sacking and the subsequent new appointment to be greeted with anything but relief; such change is often brought about by a poor run of results and the arrival of a fresh face is supposed to foster a renewed hope. But, on Wednesday afternoon, Rafael Benitez, a man who polarises opinion like few others in football, took the reins at Chelseafootball club and reopened the never-ending debate about his merits.
The Spaniard returns to English football after a two-and-a-half-year absence, and will perhaps find the landscape of the Premier League a kinder place than that which he left behind. This time round it is unlikely that he will face endless questions about a 'defensive' 4-2-3-1 system, his propensity for rotating players or a commitment to zonal marking. Of course, that he faced such inane queries during his time at Liverpool says much about what made him a success.
And Benitez was undoubtedly that. Accusations of failure at Liverpool are a falsehood worth dispelling with alacrity. Without the Reds ever matching the financial power of Europe’s biggest clubs during his five-year spell on Merseyside, Benitez led them to two Champions League finals - winning one - and mounted Liverpool’s closest challenge for the Premier League title in history.
These inarguable truths, or "facts" as the Madrid-born boss knows them, cannot be tempered with caveats; they sit proudly on Benitez’s CV alongside two La Liga titles won with Valencia - another team who overcame their rivals with greater financial might.
So much of his teams' ability to punch above their weight came from his innovative methods, the aforementioned tactics are now commonplace in the Premier League but they were widely used as a stick with which to beat Benitez at the time. And it was not just the first team who were exposed to his revolutionary approach.
Liverpool’s academy has rightly attracted praise this season due to the success of its graduates to the starting XI, but the foundations for that influx were laid solely by Benitez. The unpopular decision to axe Steve Heighway and his staff for their failure to provide a follow-up act to Steven Gerrard was heavily criticised, and yet only now the dividends are being reaped.
"But what about his awful transfer record," the doubters often chime in once other outright lies have been exposed, and yet that is another aspect which stands up favourably to the test of time. Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, Lucas Leiva, Pepe Reina, Raheem Sterling and Suso all go immediately into Brendan Rodgers' team when fit even now, and all were Benitez buys.
Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso represent further purchases who would go straight back into the XI had they not left whilst the likes of Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Peter Crouch, Momo Sissoko and Craig Bellamy were shrewd buys whose contributions cannot be understated.
|5/1||Chelsea are 5/1 to win the Premier League title with Paddy Power|
Of course, like other managers, Benitez made some mistakes in bringing new players to the club, with the acquisitions of Robbie Keane and Alberto Aquilani proving particularly damaging. But, unlike his contemporaries such as Sir Alex Ferguson (Eric Djemba-Djemba, David Bellion, Juan Veron and Fabien Barthez, anyone?), the 52-year-old's errors were compounded by observers keen to scrutinise his actions with far greater fastidiousness.
Never has such unfair treatment been as apparent as when the infamous "facts" rant was described as 'cracking up' rather than the 'mind games' it might have been termed had it come from any other manager. It is, in fact, this perception which allowed a Liverpool team who scored 77 goals in one league campaign - nine more than their nearest competitor - to be painted as negative as a result of his stewardship.
But fans of the Merseyside outfit revelled in that view that Benitez was a misunderstood genius, one of their own. His affection and understanding for a club with an emotional range keener than most was underlined by his £96,000 donation to the Hillsborough families in the aftermath of his sacking.
And so it is easy to see why Liverpool fans are still so eager to defend his reputation even now. It also explains why they might feel that Chelsea supporters, whose judgement on football is beginning to emulate their trigger-happy owner, do not deserve to be blessed with a talent they cannot appreciate.Follow David Lynch on