By James Phillips
Rafael Benitez has got to be one of the luckiest men in football. Having escaped his sinking Liverpool ship with a hefty multi-million pound pay-off in the summer, he has somehow found himself in the plush position of Internazionale coach. After leaving Liverpool with a disillusioned squad lacking in cover across the entire pitch and without a Champions League place for the first time since 2003, he was given the generally unenviable task of replacing Jose Mourinho at the European Champions. Yet for Rafa, it represented a golden chance to remain at a massive club. Massimo Moratti, the Inter President, went with the opinion of the masses on the continent who remember Rafa’s achievements in winning the Spanish league twice with Valencia and claiming the UEFA Champions League title with Liverpool in 2005. What they tend to ignore is the way Rafa ultimately flopped at Liverpool and had to be shown the door.
Benitez’s case is unusual. Having inherited a squad from Gerard Houllier, a few (mainly short-lived) Spanish additions such as Luis Garcia, Xabi Alonso, Josemi and Antonio Nunez , saw the Reds claim the European Cup for a fifth time in incredulous circumstances. Garcia’s ghost goal against Chelsea in the semi-finals, Steven Gerrard’s late face-saver against Olympiakos in the group and the miracle of Istanbul itself were all remarkable aspects of a season where the Anfield outfit finished in 5th place in the Premier League, more than 30 points behind Jose Mourinho’s champions Chelsea and level on points with Bolton Wanderers. Benitez continued to live off this glory for the rest of his reign at Anfield, with a win over West Ham in the FA Cup Final the following year proving to be his only other piece of major silverware in six years at the helm.
The Premier League was Liverpool’s real desire, with no league title since 1990, and in that respect Rafa’s reign was an abject failure. After not even coming close in his first four seasons on Merseyside, he finally built a team strong enough to challenge for the 2008/09 title. But in the aftermath of his infamous rant at ‘Mr Ferguson’ his team wavered and drop points with a series of draws. Eventually the lack of depth in the squad saw Manchester United edge out the Anfield challenge and it was at this point that Liverpool really began to fall apart. With the peeved (due to Rafa’s advances on Gareth Barry the previous year) Xabi Alonso replaced by the injury-plagued Alberto Aquilani, a failure to significantly strengthen the squad proved terminal but at the start of the season nobody could quite have predicted the scouse team’s sudden decline. With the likes of Jamie Carragher, Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres failing to perform as regularly as before, the frailties of Liverpool’s squad were revealed during a truly dismal campaign. The likes of Emiliano Insua, David Ngog and Maxi Rodriguez failed to cut the mustard while Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun and Albert Riera were just three of the many who have fallen foul of Benitez’s poor man management skills. Eliminated from the Champions League group stage, out early in both domestic cups and slipping as low as seventh in the league, Rafa had truly left Liverpool in a mess.
And while the loveable but seemingly hapless Roy Hodgson has so far failed to turn things around, with the ownership-based off-field turmoil not helping , Benitez is living the high life in Milan. Inheriting a outstanding treble-winning squad including World Player of the Year elect Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito, Julio Cesar, Maicon and Cristian Chivu all in their peak, surely even Rafa can’t fail to at least win Serie A this season. But he has already dropped key points against Roma and a far from flying Juventus this season. Benitez’s ineptness was blatant for all to see in the Super Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid in Monaco where the same team who had claimed the Champions League trophy under Mourinho looked tactically confused and were deservedly beaten by their Spanish opposition. A 2-2 draw away at Dutch side Twente on the opening day of the Champions League also seemed unconvincing.
Yet Rafa’s luck should continue as he has a squad of excellent players at his disposal. The likes of Sneijder, Milito and particularly the on-form Eto’o can all win games on their own. This was clear during the Cameroonian-inspired thrashing of Werder Bremen on matchday two and the same player grabbed the winner at Cagliari this weekend. Surely Benitez’s poor man-management and bizarre manner in public will prove to be his downful in Italy, a country not known for much patience with managers. But unless Massimiliano Allegri can gel his Brazilian trio of Ronaldinho, Robinho and Pato with ex-Inter star Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Claudio Ranieri gets the best out of veterans Francesco Totti and Adriano at Roma, the man from Madrid may well achieve Serie A success with the brilliant squad that he has undeservedly inherited.