It was difficult to see Rafa Benitez’s reintroduction into English football going any other way. Chelsea fans are certainly well within their right to voice their displeasure at a former rival manager taking the reins at Stamford Bridge, but it seems as though everyone else is waiting almost impatiently for Benitez to slip up.
It appears to be forgotten that Benitez is an excellent manager with trophies in the two leading football leagues in Europe. There were questions as to whether he was even good enough to take over the job at Chelsea, while most had apparently forgotten that Roberto Di Matteo was once in charge at West Brom.
Benitez is mocked as a ‘Spanish waiter’ with outlandish tactical ideas. You’ll never escape a quick joke about that speech in which he laid down the letter on Manchester United an Alex Ferguson. Funny, considering most of what he said is in line with everyone else’s view, at least those who don’t spend their weekends at Old Trafford.
The failures at Inter Milan come first, not the successes elsewhere. The fact that he tried to improve, albeit not change, the treble-winning side of the previous season was seen as a little presumptuous. But Benitez is a far better manager than most will give him credit for.
How many managers have come close to upsetting the duopoly in La Liga? How many have actually gone all the way and captured the league title when every suggestion was that a feat of that nature was impossible? Benitez wasn’t done with his La Liga title win in 2002, as two years later he fancied it again and landed his second domestic trophy while at the Mestalla.
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This is a manager who has achieved incredible success with Valencia, going a step further and away from Spanish football and winning the Uefa Cup in his final season at the club. He’s one of the few managers in recent years to elevate his name in Spain at a stadium that wasn’t the Camp Nou or Bernabeu.
He took an average Liverpool to Champions League glory, overcoming one of the finer teams in Europe that season in AC Milan and adding to that the following year with an FA Cup. He didn’t have the same financial muscle as Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, yet he is one of only two managers to guide Liverpool to within arms reach of the Premier League title since the league’s inception. His side’s dramatic downfall the following season should be placed squarely at the door of Hicks and Gillett.
Benitez remains the only manager to bring the very best out of Fernando Torres, stretching from the player’s time at Atletico Madrid through to his current spell at Chelsea and the fourth manager to guide him in a blue shirt.
Let’s not take away from how tactically progressive the Spaniard can be. English football isn’t overly keen on zonal marking, but a manager who has a great degree of success and who is well learned in the game should certainly be given some leeway in experimenting and breaking away from the norm.
Geoff Shreeves couldn’t wait to tell Benitez about the chorus of boos that shook the foundations of Stamford Bridge. That post-match interview was embarrassing and summed up how foreign managers can be so publicly degraded without any need. The alarming regularity of it seems to hide something much more unpleasant.
Some might perceive Benitez as somewhat unpredictable and erratic, a bit loony but certainly well short of the Marcelo Bielsa extreme. However, it can’t be ignored that Chelsea have picked up one of the better managers available, even if it’s easier and more desirable to think otherwise.
Maybe Benitez will need to win the Premier League title this season and perhaps one more trophy to really silence the doubters. But should that be the only grounds for rebuilding his reputation in England? Chelsea are a club who don’t go about their transfer business with certain managers in mind. Rather, Benitez, like others before him, are dropped in and given specific instructions to turn Abramovich’s expensive toys into a flawless, title-winning super team.
No one thinks any less of Roberto Di Matteo, Carlo Ancelotti remains one of Europe’s best managers, and even Andre Villas-Boas is back in a top job in English football. Success with Chelsea for Benitez might do a lot for his reputation here, but at the same time it shouldn’t be seen as a stain on his record if he (or when he) gets the axe.