“The difference between players is not always the quality but their mentality.” -Rafael Benitez
When we talk about football managers and the grave role they play in not just any particular match but shaping the whole organization, Rafael Benitez amongst the great Spanish managers must be put under the limelight. The 59-year-old Spaniard who started his coaching career with Real Madrid’s U-19, reserve team as well as the assistant coach for the senior team, his spell in Spain was short-lived and unsuccessful, managing both Valladolid and Osasuna. In 1997, he joined another Segunda División side, Extremadura, and led them to the promotion, after winning 23 out of 42 games. Although, Extremadura survived only one season in the Primera Division. This made Benitez exit the job and polish his managerial skills as he went on to study in England an Italy, working as a commentator and analyst. Benitez bounced back as a manager of Tenerife, coaching some world-class players like Curro Torres and Luis Garcia and helped them with promotion as well.
Benitez’ Big Break with Valencia C.F
After leading Tenerife to promotion in 2000, Rafael Benitez was appointed as the manager for the Spanish Primera Division side Valencia in 2001. Benitez brought in an attacking style of football which won the Valencia fans over and it was these tactics which helped him win the title with Valencia after a long wait of 31 years. Unfortunately, the club could not win it the next year and finished 5th behind the La Liga giants Real Madrid. The only silver lining this season was that Benitez made his Champions League debut and drove them to the quarterfinals position but was knocked out by the mighty Inter Milan side. In an interesting turn of events, Benitez shepherded Valencia to another La Liga title and a UEFA Cup Final after beating the French side Marseille 2-0. Football is an unexpected game and it is hard to figure out what goes on outside the pitch. Despite the success Benitez had in the past years, he had a spar with the Director of Football when he was not given control over the signings of new players. Benitez was quoted saying “I was hoping for a sofa [a defender] and they've brought me a lamp” in reference to the positions he wanted to strengthen. He later resigned in June 2004 having a win percentage of 54.3.
First Spaniard to manage a Premier League side.
Right after resigning from Liverpool, Benitez was appointed by the Premier League colossus Liverpool. A manager’s job is no walk in the park, especially when you are in the most competitive league. His first stint as a Liverpool manager was to convince club captain Steven Gerrard to not move to South-West London to Chelsea. With Steven Gerrard’s loyalty and Benitez’ excellence, he was successful in doing so. However, he could not convince Micheal Owen to extend his contract and subsequently he was sold to Real Madrid. This did not stop Benitez from signing world class players like Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso to gain instant approval from the Merseyside fans who proudly call themselves Kopites. He was, however unable to improve Liverpool’s position in the league due to a majority of players missing out due to injuries, he managed to reach the Domestic Club Final against Chelsea which they lost 3-2 after extra time. He is most acknowledged for winning the Champions League with Liverpool in the miraculous night at Istanbul, where his side came back from a 3 goal deficit in the 2nd half and went on to win against the mighty AC Milan side on penalties. The man who sat cross-legged during the Champions League finals when his team was facing the likes of Pirlo, Gattuso and Maldini on penalties showed what a calm manager he was. The period of 2006-08, saw new owners for Liverpool who were full of praise for the Spaniard. After Liverpool defeated Chelsea on penalties in Champions League semi-finals, club owner Gillett declared, “Rafa has been tremendous, We knew of him but I don't think we realized how good he was, and not just as a coach. Not only was he a brilliant coach but he is a very sharp, savvy businessman. He knows what he wants and how to get it. The more we have seen of him the more impressed we have become.” However, Rafa did not reciprocate of these statements and it was reported that he did not have the full support of the club. Benitez eventually ended up breaking club record transfer fee by signing Fernando Torres and players like Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun, and Lucas Leiva. However, by the end of 2008 season, he failed to win any domestic cups due to a shocking defeat against Barnsley and a Champions League exit against Chelsea in the quarterfinals. With a season like that, it was quite evident that Benitez would leave Liverpool but on 18th March 2009, after defeating Real Madrid 4-0 and Manchester United 4-1, Benitez signed a new 5 year deal with Liverpool saying I love the club, fans, and the city. This deal did not las long as Benitez left the club next year with “mutual consent” after Liverpool saw its worst run in 22 years. This was mostly influenced by failing to replace Xabi Alonso with players like Aquilani or Leiva. After exiting Champions League in just the group stages, Liverpool was knocked out by Athletico Madrid in the Europa League, destroying any hope for silverware. He won the Champions League, Super Cup, FA Cup, and FA Community Sheild with Liverpool winning 194 out of 350 matches as Liverpool’s manager and then moved to Italy.
The Italian Job.
Benitez was not the one to take a break. Just a few days after Benitez left Liverpool, he replaced the title winner Jose Mourinho who moved to manage Real Madrid in June 2010. 2 months later, Benitez won his first trophy, the Italian Super Cup after defeating AS Roma 3-1. That was, however, one of the only 2 silverware he won with the Milan side who he signed a 2-year deal with. During his reign, Inter slumped to the 6th position in the league but guided them to win the Club World Cup in December 2010. This led him to ask more funding for the signing of new players if they wanted to keep him as the coach, despite having won the treble just a few months earlier. His request was dismissed by the Director and his term in Italy was minuscule as he was sacked in the same month.
The England recall.
After a successful campaign with Liverpool, Benitez was appointed as the interim manager for Chelsea after they sacked Di Matteo. In November 2012, Benitez even after disapproval from Chelsea fans was appointed as their interim manager. He was welcome with a fierce reception in his first home game which ended with a goalless draw against Manchester City. The only decoration he won as Chelsea’s interim manager was the UEFA Europa League after the Blues were defeated by Manchester City in the FA Cup Finals. His relationship with the Chelsea boss Roman Abramovich as well as the players was excellent. Defender David Luiz applauded Benitez with making critical decisions at half time, saying, "He changed some of our positions in the second half. That's why we played better and won the title. He spoke a lot to us to change the intensity." On the winning goal scored by Branislav Ivanović, Juan Mata said, "Rafa told us we had to aim to the far post because it was Artur's weakest place. I just tried to put the ball there and Ivanovic did the rest” after winning the Europa League against Benfica with a late winner. His final game as Chelsea’s interim manager was against Everton which he won 2-1 and ensured a 3rd place finish for Chelsea in the 2012-13 season.
A Tour back to Italy and Spain.
On 27th May 2013, Benitez was announced as the manager to the Italian heavyweights Napoli. In his first season incharge, he won the Coppa Italia and led Napoli to the last 16 of Europa League, in which they were defeated by FC Porto. With not being a very popular manager in the Napoli side, Benítez announced that he would resign at the end of the 2014–15 season. His last match was a defeat to Lazio who took a place in the Champions League at Napoli’s expense.
The next season saw a turnaround as he was appointed as the manager for Spanish giants Real Madrid. It was under his reign that Real Madrid lost against Sevilla and ended their unbeaten streak. His time as Real Madrid manager was not pleasing even after they ended up in the top of their group in the Champions Leauge, he fielded an ineligible player in Denis Cheryshev as he was suspended for that match, resulting in the second leg being canceled and Madrid being disqualified. Real Madrid lost the Clasico against Barcelona 4-0 and in January 2016, Benitez was sacked due to the unpopularity with fans and disapproval by players due to failure of getting results against top sides.
In 2016, Benitez was appointed as Newcastle’s manager as they were close to relegation. He lost his first game in charge losing to then champions Leicester City. Newcastle ended the season with a 6 match unbeaten run but still was relegated that season. It was confirmed that Benitez would stay the manager. The very next season, he won the EFL Championship and made an immediate return to the Premier League after one season in the Championship. This season, Newcastle are at the 15th position in the Premier League with 38 points and away from relegation and 4 games left to play.
With being the only manager in the history to have won UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup and individual honors like La Liga Best Coach:2002, UEFA Best Manager 2003-04 and 2004-05, European Coach of the year: 2005, LMA Special Merit Award: 2006, Premier League Manager of the Month(7 times) : November 2005, December 2005, January 2007, October 2008, March 2009, April 2013, November 2018 and EFL Championship Manager of the Month: October 2016; it is fair to say that even though he may not be as threatening as he was with his tactics, Rafael Benitez is still one of the top managers to ever have stepped in the world of football.