‘Welcome to the lion’s den’ is a familiar lyric to those of the Blue persuasion of West London. Blared loudly before home games, it is the words from Chelsea-supporting Madness frontman Suggs and it couldn’t be more fitting for the Blues’ newest managerial appointment, Rafael Benitez. 

The much maligned Spaniard has had a sojourn from management after his wretched brief experience in Italy, picking up the shards of Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side. After a poor league campaign before the Christmas break, Benitez was relieved of his duties by Massimo Moratti after demanding that the president should deliver on his failed promises. Since then, Benitez has continually reiterated that only the right project with a vision will entice him out of his cosy suburban home in Merseyside. Linked with several posts across Europe, Benitez has shied away
claiming they failed to match his expectation. Indeed, once the Liverpool post was available, the current owners failed to acknowledge another ghost of their past.  

The question to many has been as to why hasn’t Benitez had a job, if he was ‘that’ good? Two La Liga titles, one UEFA Cup, one Champions League, one FA Cup and several other cups suggest his CV is slightly better than Harry Redknapp’s. Understandably, there is a clamour over Pep Guardiola after his marvellous work in creating a masterful team with Barcelona but that door remains firmly shut until the summer seemingly. Which other managers with that pedigree are available? 

Of course the dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo is questionable, and somewhat laughable, especially the timing of it. So early in the season, and certainly having won the elusive Champions League and FA Cup, would surely have meant Di Matteo would have been given the opportunity to deliver on Roman Abramovich’s mandate. Europe’s elite competition is lucrative and Chelsea’s failure to progress would be disastrous to their books so close to the implementation of Financial Fair Play. 
If Abramovich wants a European football specialist, there is no better available than Benitez. Many a time the Madrileno had his back against the wall needing a win in the competition and pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Liverpool’s Champions League campaign in season 2007-08 started poorly with a draw against Porto and defeats against Marseille and Besiktas. With pressure building to see Liverpool not be knocked out of the competition after a summer of huge spending bringing in Fernando Torres among others, Benitez managed to turn round the team’s fortunes by winning the remaining three games, scoring 16 and conceding one. Unfortunately for Benitez and Liverpool, they fell at the semi-final stage to Avram Grant’s Chelsea following a dramatic extra time winner from Didier Drogba. But it demonstrates what Benitez is capable of doing with a team which has far less talent and ability to what the current Chelsea team possesses. Needless to say, what he managed to do with the Liverpool team in Istanbul, a squad which contained Josemi, Djimi Traore, Vladimir Smicer among so many others. 

Benitez’s Liverpool managed to reach two Champions League finals (beating Chelsea both times en route to the final) and one semi final. In his time conquering not only an incredibly wealthy Chelsea, but also Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Arsenal highlights his meticulous mind in preparing his side to achieve progression over two legs against strong opposition. 

Indeed, his league performance over four of his seasons at Liverpool highlighted improvement and showing his understanding of the league. Runners-up to Manchester United in 2009 wasn’t followed up the season after in which he was handed his P45. For that failing, Benitez cites the boards lack of foresight and being handcuffed as the club were forced to asset strip as the club were paying high interest rates on the debt loaded on the club -a problem which he won’t have to face with Abramovich at the helm. 

There are doubts over Benitez’s personality and whether he is the right fit for a club with huge personalities and even bigger voices. There is huge scope for improvement on a talented team boasting of flair and elegance but lacking the ruthless aggression which Benitez demands of his sides, especially in the middle of the field. Benitez’s biggest challenge will be how strong his voice will be when demanding players in January, but perhaps the test is rejuvenating a certain Mr Torres. The prized £50m asset has failed to deliver on the huge investment placed on him however much like Benitez, perhaps it’s too early to right him off.  

Suhail Seedat is a podcaster and book reviewer for Lovely Left Foot.


Leave a Reply