Rafa Benitez is an exceptional manager who has had an impressive career. The Spaniard has won trophies in Spain, England and Italy, and has had a lot of success throughout his time as a manager. He is a very highly thought of boss, who has been given plenty of big jobs throughout his career. And with him being under the age of 60, he still has plenty of time for more future success.
As a player, Rafa Benitez had to retire early because of a knee injury. He did play over 150 games, but never reached the level many thought he could have because of injuries.
Benitez began coaching in 1986; taking up a role in Real Madrid’s youth teams. Up to 1993, he took charge of Castilla Youth ‘B’, Real Madrid Juvenil ‘B’, Real Madrid Juvenil ‘A’, and Real Madrid under-19s. In 1993, Benitez was appointed manager of Real Madrid’s ‘B’ team. He was called up to be Vicente del Bosque’s assistant in the Real Madrid first team, before moving back to take charge of the ‘B’ team.
When Benitez moved away from Real Madrid, he didn’t have immediate success. Spells at Real Valladolid and Osasuna between 1995 and 1997 didn’t go well for him.
In 1997, Benitez went to Segunda (second) Division club Extremadura. He had his first success as a manager there, and got them promoted to La Liga. They lasted just one season there, though, and were relegated via a play-off.
After his spell at Extremadura, Benitez took a year off from management so he could study other clubs and learn more about the game.
After his break, Benitez joined Segunda Division side Tenerife. Tenerife were promoted to La Liga in Benitez’s first season in charge. After this, he was given a chance to manage Valencia.
Rafa Benitez was appointed as manager of Valencia in 2001. He inherited a strong squad of players, who had just reached two Champions League finals in a row. They had lost both of these, against Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, but it’s clear that they were a good group of players since they managed to get that far.
Benitez continued the good work that previous manager Hector Cuper had done. Benitez went on to win La Liga in his first season in charge, as Valencia finished seven points clear of Deportivo La Coruna. It was the club’s first league title for 31 years, as they last won it in 1971.
After setting the bar so high, the following season would be a disappointment. Valencia finished fifth in La Liga and went out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
But the season after, Rafa Benitez won another league title. Valencia won La Liga; finishing five points clear of Barcelona. They also won the Uefa Cup, as they beat Marseille in the final. It was a very good season for the Spanish side.
Despite having huge success, Benitez would go on to fall out with the board and leave the club. He wanted to strengthen the squad, and asked for a striker: Samuel Eto’o, according to reports. But the board ended up buying him winger Fabian Canobbio instead. This is when Benitez said: “I was hoping for a sofa and they bought me a lamp.” He would leave the club at the start of June 2004.
But because of his success at Valencia, Benitez was never going to be short of job offers. Just over two weeks later, he was appointed as manager of Liverpool.
In 2004, Rafa Benitez became the first Spanish manager in Premier League history when he joined Liverpool. He had a couple of big tasks on his hands right from the start, though. They were to convince Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen to stay at the club. Gerrard was considering leaving Liverpool, as he thought they weren’t going anywhere under Gerard Houllier. But after Gerrard spoke to Benitez, he decided to stay at the club. Benitez couldn’t convince Owen to stay too, though, and he moved to Real Madrid, which, with hindsight, was a poor decision.
In his first summer at Liverpool, Benitez brought Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia to the club. Liverpool went on to finish fifth in the table: 27 points behind Chelsea. They also lost to Chelsea in the League Cup final. But the league and League Cup were irrelevant that season, and were quickly forgotten about because something bigger happened. You may know what this is…
Champions League 2004/05
In Liverpool’s final Champions League group game, they faced Olympiacos at Anfield, with nothing less than a two-goal win being enough to send them through. The Reds were just four minutes from going out of the competition. But Steven Gerrard rescued them, and smashed the net with a thunderbolt from outside the box; sending Liverpool through to the knockout stages. The goal is legendary, but so is the commentary. “Mellor, lovely cushioned header, for Gerraaarrrrdddd.” “Ohhhh yaa beauty! What a hit son, WHAT A HIT!
Liverpool won the game 3-1, and got out of the group. They went on to play Bayer Leverkusen in the last-16, with Rafa Benitez’s side beating the German club comfortably; running out 6-2 winners on aggregate.
In the quarter-final, Liverpool were victorious against Juventus, winning 2-1, before beating Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea 1-0 in the semi-final.
This set up a Champions League final showdown with AC Milan in Istanbul. The Italian side boasted a wealth of talent, with the likes of Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Paulo Maldini, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko lining out for Carlo Ancelotti’s team.
While Liverpool had some talented players, the likes of Steve Finnan, Djimi Traore, John Arne Riise, Harry Kewell and Milan Baros were of no comparison. There is no disrespect meant to those players either, as they were all extremely good players, but the AC Milan side was unquestionably one of the most talented around.
In the first half of the final in Istanbul, AC Milan showed their class. They raced into a 3-0 lead, with Maldini opening the scoring after less than one minute, before Hernan Crespo scored twice. Rafa Benitez, and Liverpool’s, Champions League dream seemed to be over at half time. But Benitez changed things up at the break, and Liverpool looked a different side.
Jamie Carragher, who played for Liverpool that day, explained what Benitez did at half time. In his autobiography, he said:
First, he told Traore to get into the shower. That was the polite code for telling a player he’s being subbed. Djibril Cisse was told he’d be coming on to play on the right side and was already getting kitted out. As Djimi removed his shirt, an argument was brewing between Steve Finnan and our physio Dave Galley. Finnan had damaged a groin and Dave told Rafa he thought he should be subbed. Finn was distraught and pleaded to stay on. Rafa wouldn’t budge.
“We’ve only two subs left because we’ve already lost Kewell with an injury,” he explained. “I can’t afford to make two now, and if you stay on I’ve lost my last sub.”
Traore was told to put his kit back on. Then, as if struck by a moment of clarity, Benitez made an abrupt decision. “Hamann will replace Finnan and we’ll play 3-5-2,” he explained, displaying an assured conviction in his voice which, temporarily at least, gave me confidence. “Pirlo is running the game from midfield, so I want Luis and Stevie to play around him and outnumber them in the middle so he can’t pass the ball.”
The swiftness of this decision confirmed to me he may have considered this formation earlier. The same set-up had worked in Turin, although that had been a purely defensive strategy. “OK,” part of me was thinking, “forty-five minutes too late, but we got there in the end.” Given the circumstances, it was still a brave move. With both Cisse and Hamann now preparing to come on, there was only one problem. “Rafa, I think we’ve 12 players out there now.” Djibril would have to wait a while longer for his introduction.
In the second half, Liverpool made the most unlikely of comebacks. The game seemed like it was all over, but the Reds weren’t about to give up. In the space of just six minutes, Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso scored to draw Liverpool level. There was still half an hour to play at this stage, but the game didn’t see any more goals. Extra-time also went scoreless, and they went to a penalty shootout.
Jersey Dudek was the hero in the Liverpool goal. He danced around his line in an attempt to put the AC Milan players off. And it worked. One was put over the bar, while Dudek made two saves from spot-kicks. The Reds were crowned European Champions when Dudek saved Shevchenko’s penalty.
It is undoubtedly one of the best comebacks in the recent history of top-level football. To win the Champions League after being 3-0 down would have been seen as impossible. Nothing compares to Liverpool’s amazing win.
The next season, Liverpool went on to win the Uefa Super Cup and the FA Cup. In the FA Cup final, against West Ham, Liverpool again mounted an impressive comeback. They found themselves 2-0 down, before scoring twice to make it 2-2. West Ham went into a 3-2 lead and looked like they had it won, before Gerrard came up with goods yet again; smashing in from 30 yards in stoppage time to send the game to extra-time. A penalty shootout followed, which the Reds won 3-1.
Apart from the Community Shield, the 2006 FA Cup was the last trophy Rafa Benitez won at Liverpool. They reached another Champions League final under the Spaniard’s guidance, again against AC Milan, but the Italian side won the game 2-1.
Liverpool mounted a Premier League title challenge in the 2008/09 season, but ended up finishing second: four points behind arch-rivals Manchester United. That season was the beginning of the end for Benitez at Liverpool.
There was a power-struggle at Anfield, with new owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks not backing Benitez as much as he would have liked. In March 2009, Benitez signed a new five-year contract, despite his differences with the board, as he said he loved the fans, the club and the city, and could never say no to staying.
Rumours that he would leave the club dragged on for a couple of years in total, before he was eventually sacked in 2010.
Around a week after leaving Liverpool, Rafa Benitez took over as Inter Milan’s manager. He had big shoes to fill, as previous manager, Jose Mourinho, had won Serie A, the Champions League and the Coppa Italia in the previous season. Despite winning the Italian Super Cup in his first game and the Club World Cup in December, Benitez only lasted at the club until December 2010, when he was sacked.
Rafa Benitez didn’t get another job until November 2012, when he was given the interim manager’s job at Chelsea until the end of the season, after the club sacked Champions League winner Roberto Di Matteo. This didn’t go down well with the Chelsea fans, and they heavily criticised the man who had been critical of them when he was at Liverpool.
“We don’t need to give away stupid plastic flags to our fans to wave, our supporters are always there with their hearts and that is all we need,” Benitez said when he was at Liverpool. “It’s the passion of the fans that helps us to win matches, not flags. Chelsea fans lack passion.”
He also criticised Chelsea legend Didier Drogba, calling him a diver, and once said that he would never manager Chelsea because Liverpool are the only team in England.
When Benitez was unveiled to the crowd, he received a hostile ‘welcome’ at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea fans just couldn’t warm to him, which is probably understandable.
All-in-all, things didn’t go too badly for Benitez at Chelsea. They went out of the Champions League in the group stage, but he can’t be blamed for that because they were already in a poor position when he took over. But they went on to win the Europa League and finish third in the Premier League; qualifying for the following season’s Champions League.
Rafa Benitez signed a two-year contract at Napoli in 2013. He led them to a Coppa Italia win in his first season, but they went out of the Europa League in the last-16 against Porto. He guided Napoli to third in Serie A, and they qualified for the Champions League.
The next season, they went out of the Champions League in the qualifying rounds against Athletic Bilbao and entered the Europa League. Napoli managed to get to the semi-final, but they went out to Ukrainian side Dnipro. Benitez announced he would be leaving at the end of that season. His final game was a 4-2 defeat to Lazio, which meant Napoli were pipped for a Champions League qualification place on the final day.
Rafa Benitez took over as Real Madrid manager in June 2015. His spell there was similar to the one at Inter Milan, though, as they didn’t do as well as they would have hoped. Real Madrid sacked him in January 2016, with the club third in La Liga. They were also hammered 4-0 by Barcelona in El Clasico earlier in the season. They appointed Zinedine Zidane in his place. The legendary French midfielder went on to win three Champions Leagues in a row, so it wasn’t a bad decision by the club.
In March 2016, Rafa Benitez was appointed as manager of Newcastle. The Magpies were having an extremely poor season and occupied the relegation places in the Premier League when he took over. They were a point from safety with 10 games remaining, and had played a game less than their relegation rivals. But, despite a six-game unbeaten run at the end of the season – beating Swansea, Crystal Palace and Tottenham, and drawing with Manchester City, Liverpool and Aston Villa – Newcastle went down. This is because arch-rivals Sunderland also went on a good run of form. Sunderland ended up staying up, as Newcastle were relegated to the Championship.
In Benitez’s first full season at Newcastle, they won the Championship title; finishing one point clear of Brighton. They were promoted back to the Premier League, where they remain.
Rafa Benitez has generally done a good job since joining Newcastle. There have been some ups and downs, and they have struggled at times. But these struggles can mostly be blamed on owner Mike Ashley’s reluctance to put any money into the club that he wants to sell. Because he won’t put money into it, he may lose Benitez when his contract is up. This would be a real shame, because he has shown that he is a brilliant manager and has done very well at the club. Newcastle are lucky to have such a successful manager in charge of their team, and should do whatever it takes to keep him at the club.
Rafa Benitez has had an impressive career, and will undoubtedly enjoy more success in the years to come. He has plenty more years as a manager, and will more than likely keep working at big clubs. While things haven’t always gone as well as he would have hoped, he has shown at Liverpool, Valencia and Newcastle that he has what it takes to get the very best out of players. At each club, some players wouldn’t have been considered as world class, but they have punched above their weight under Benitez. He can be proud of what he has achieved as a manager.
“Rafa Benitez Career – From 1986 to now” is part of our in-depth series, with a new article being published every week.