By Kris Voakes
To some, Rafa Benitez remains something of a laughing stock. From his mind games defeat to Sir Alex Ferguson full of "fact, fact, fact" to a six-month spell with Chelsea punctuated from start to end with crowd derision, via a failed attempt to follow Jose Mourinho’s success at Inter, the Spaniard’s flaws have been well covered by football fans and media the world over.
Yet anyone doubting his capabilities as a coach has been knocked down a peg or two before now, and Wednesday’s victory for Napoli against Borussia Dortmund in his first Champions League game in charge served as the latest example of what Benitez has in his armoury.
Following the loss of Edinson Cavani in the summer, many wondered how the 53-year-old would fill such a massive hole, but his response has been to take Walter Mazzarri’s 3-5-2 formation and rejig it completely. Not content with switching to a 4-2-3-1, Benitez has also got the Azzurri playing with more confidence and control on the ball, less dependent on the counterattack and therefore more able to impose themselves on their opposition.
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After the ecstasy of last season's Champions League run, Borussia Dortmund went through a humbling experience at the hands of Napoli at the San Paolo.
Limp up front, their defence was nothing short of shocking. The warning signs had been there long before Gonzalo Higuain headed Napoli into the lead, with Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic cut open at ease a number of times. The German, in particular, had a horrific evening - out of position and error-prone.
Everything that could have gone wrong for Dortmund did. Roman Weidenfeller was shown red for an act of stupidity, Klopp lost his cool and their lack of depth was exposed when Hummels was injured, to be replaced by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Indeed, when the Gabon interantional forced Juan Zuniga to put the ball past his own keeper, it gave the final scoreline an air of respectability they did little to deserve.
- Enis Koylu
Dortmund, last season’s Champions League runners-up, simply had no answer. Their wayward defending was punished with the fantastic footwork of Lorenzo Insigne, the probing forays of Marek Hamsik and the intelligent movement of Gonzalo Higuain. Whereas once upon a time Napoli enjoyed playing home games as though they were on the road, ceding possession in order to hit opposition defences hard on the break, there is now a clear belief that they can take on their visitors by playing better, more controlled football.
And behind it all is Benitez, a man with plenty of European pedigree. In winning a Uefa Cup with Valencia, Champions League with Liverpool and Europa League at Chelsea, he has shown time and again that he has the tactical nous to lead a team into the heat of the biggest battles and come out on top. He has taken on the brightest and cleverest of footballing minds and been a winner. Now he’s looking to make European winners of Napoli in a group from which few expect them to progress.
Yet on Wednesday it was they, not Dortmund, who looked like Champions League finalists for most of the contest. Higuain’s opener came from a short corner at which both Mats Hummels was posted on the inactive Raul Albiol, leaving Marcel Schmelzer unable to hold off the former Real Madrid striker alone. In a sport in which centre-forwards are regularly told to work their way into contests with full-backs rather than centre-backs, Jurgen Klopp had handed Napoli the initiative. 1-0 to Benitez.
By the time Insigne added a stunning second direct from a free-kick off the underside of the bar, the Partenopei could have been well out of sight, and their inability to turn their superiority into more goals was the only downside to the evening.
After Roman Weidenfeller’s sending-off had left BVB a man shy, Insigne and Juan Zuniga continued to make the most of Kevin Grosskreutz’s discomfort playing out of position at right-back. Had each half chance they created been finished, Real Madrid’s 6-1 win over Galatasaray on Tuesday would have been made to look modest in comparison.
Instead they were left to live on their nerves at the end after Zuniga tried to be too clever with a ball in behind the defence, flicking a leg out and diverting it into his own goal. That could prove vital in the head-to-head come the group’s end, but Benitez will be keen to ensure it doesn’t get that far.
A winner in Europe before, he knows exactly how to carry teams through difficult groups. And with a lively, controlled outfit who appear to be revelling in the freeing of their shackles, Napoli look to be loving life under Benitez. 'Rafa the Gaffer' is out to silence his critics again, and we all know what sort of response he's capable of.