By Shikharr Chandra
At times, it felt as if he was the only one standing there. Without any support from the fans, Rafa Benitez did his job quietly in the Stamford Bridge dugout as he guided the club to their second European trophy in consecutive seasons and a well acclaimed third place finish in the league behind the two Manchester clubs.
Rafael Benitez took over the challenging task of replacing Roberto Di Matteo who had just months before won the Holy Grail of European football. Thanks to his previous stint with Liverpool, fans never took a liking to the Spaniard and in his very first in-charge; 'Rafa Out' banners were on display. However Benitez never succumbed to pressure as the interim Chelsea manager completed his job, a thankless one which further cemented his status as one of the finest managers in Europe.
Born in Madrid and a part of the Real Madrid youth academy, Benitez never really made a mark as a player as injuries stunted his career. However determined as he was, he was soon part of the coaching setup of the Real Madrid side back in 1986 and would soon see himself promoted as the head coach of Castilla B, where he won two league titles in his three year stint. He was later promoted to the Real Madrid Youth B and the U19's side. He was once again successful with the two teams and looked set to embark on a great coaching career.
Jobs followed Benitez after that but he didn’t succeed. Failure at Osasuna and Real Valladolid saw him get the sack without even completing a full season.
In the end the chairman told me I didn’t have the experience but I was disappointed because, although we were bottom, we were playing good football and improving. It was similar at Osasuna. They wanted to be promoted within one year instead of two – that was the project. - Benitez on Valladolid.
Following his impressive spell with Tenerife, who were promoted to the La Liga from Segunda, Benitez took over the challenging job of managing Valencia, a club who were then one of the powerhouses of European football having played back-to-back Champions League finals but failing on both occasions.
They needed someone who could get them over this hoodoo and with the head coach’s job reportedly been declined by top managers such as Luis Aragones.
Benitez did not yield to pressure at his new club. The Spaniard won two league titles and a UEFA Cup in his three seasons at the club along with a quarter-final finish in the Champions League. The Spaniard was the last man to break the duopoly in the La Liga between Real Madrid and Barcelona and his attacking brand of football at the club saw him win many plaudits.
His use of 4-2-3-1 formation was entertaining with one touch, quick passing and precise finishing in front which made Valencia a lethal side and arguably one of the finest sides the club has had in their history.
The criticism leveled at Benitez over the years has been regarding his failure in transfer window. However signing Mista from Tenerife was a masterstroke as his 19 goals in his first season at the club played a huge role in Valencia's success.
Differences with the club hierarchy led to the Spaniard parting ways with Los Che and joining Liverpool. In his very first season at the club, Benitez won the Champions League in a historic night at Istanbul.
The Reds were 3-0 down in the first half and his decision to shuffle the backline by switching to three in defense turned out to play a major role in their comeback to make it 3-3 and go on to win the cup. Wins against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, AC Milan and Juventus in the competition made up for Liverpool's poor run in the league that saw them finish fifth.
While critics would point to the amount of money he spent at Liverpool on the likes of Andres Dossena or Jermaine Pennant, but he also brought in important players like Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano who played a key role for the club. Fernando Torres was the star signing at Liverpool which according to Sir Alex Ferguson was ‘not worth the risk.’
Benitez ended his spell at Liverpool with four trophies in as many seasons and it was under him that the club posed a league title challenge in more than 15 years.
In his final season, the results weren’t favourable and once again a difference of opinion with the then owners, Gillett and Hicks led to his departure.
The next two stints at Inter Milan and Chelsea were short-lived. Though he only spent less than six months with the Nerazzurri, he won the Club World Cup. However their results in the Serie A went on a downward spiral which led to him being given the boot.
At Chelsea, he was always the ‘interim’ manager. However he did what was asked of him and provided more balance to the squad as they were inconsistent at the start of the season. He brought out the best out of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar and also made Chelsea a better attacking unit.
Despite losing key players in Edinson Cavani and Morgan De Sanctis, Benitez oversaw the transfers and brought in players such as Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol, Jose Callejon and Pepe Reina on-loan from Liverpool. He won the Coppa Italia over the weekend to once again win a trophy in his first season at a club.
Even though Scudetto remains a distant dream for Napoli, one cannot write off Benitez to win it in the near future.
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