Any way back for Rafa?

Former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has been heavily linked with a return to the top flight the past few months, but as of yet, no move has materialised, after being overlooked for both the Tottenham and Liverpool jobs. With this in mind, will the Spaniard ever realise his dream of returning to manage in the Premier League and if so, where could he potentially go?

Trends effect all walks of life, whether it be fashion, music or film, and the current trend with concerns to football management is to go for a younger manager. Brendan Rodgers secured the Liverpool job after just one season of top flight experience with mid-table Swansea at the age of 39.

Andre Villas-Boas was preferred for the Tottenham job and has already managed both Porto and Chelsea by the age of 34. Even 38 year-old Roberto Martinez has been linked with both of the aforementioned jobs seemingly more to do with his age as much as it is a casual appreciation for the way Wigan play. Young managers are very much the ‘in’ thing at the moment and clubs are gambling in search of the next Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp. It’s no wonder then that a rotund 52 year-old from Madrid is finding work somewhat more difficult to come by. Is Benitez tainted by his past affiliation to Liverpool or is it a wider problem than that?

Let’s make no bones about it, the strength in depth of available, experienced managers is certainly a tad on the deep side at the moment – alongside Benitez, Fabio Capello (with Russia lurking), Louis van Gaal, Frank Rijkaard, Laurent Blanc and Gregorio Manzano are all out of work. Fairness stipulates that I have to at least inform you that former Charlton boss Alan Curbishley is still on at 66/1 at every bookie across the country for any job that may come up in the future, even if it’s just do to your windows for a bit, he’s an ‘outsider’ for that too.

Benitez had to work under some extremely tough circumstances at Liverpool under the Hicks and Gillett administration. Battling the largely incompetent Rick Parry for control, his hate-filled relationship with the club’s managing director Christian Purslow, and constantly being undermined at every turn by the joint-worst owners in Premier League history. The links to Jurgen Klinsmann being touted as his replacement beggared belief, considering his lack of, well, qualifications to lead such a side in such dire economic circumstances and he performed a minor miracle considering the pressure and constraints he was working under and the club have never been the quite the same since his departure.

We shouldn’t forget that Benitez won the Champions League with a side largely of Gerard Houllier’s making, with only Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia starting the now infamous Istanbul triumph against AC Milan having been purchased by the Spaniard in his first full season in charge. This isn’t to mention the superb job he did at Valencia, winning two league titles, ending a thirty-year drought in the process and the UEFA Cup in 2004, beating Marseille in the final. He’s an immensely qualified coach.

However, his stock has clearly fallen since he was sacked from the Inter Milan job after a tumultuous six-month reign after enduring a fractious relationship with the club’s irascible owner Massimo Moratti. The main problem here, though, that is often glossed over, is how little Moratti knows about football. To put it quite simply, the man is a rich idiot. Benitez never should have taken the job in the first place, following Jose Mourinho after he won the treble was always going to be an impossible task and his heir was on a hiding to nothing.

At Inter, Benitez repeatedly asked for a larger transfer budget, but Moratti turned this request down, citing the fact that this was the squad that had just won the Serie A title and Champions League. He was undone by a freakishly long injury list, a determination to play a more expansive style of play than his bitter foe and predecessor, while battling with board members behind the scenes (which appear to be a noticeable pattern throughout his managerial career).

Benitez took the job all for the wrong reasons, he seemed to want to prove that he was better than Mourinho rather than an actual desire to take the job, which is always a rocky way to start employment at any club. The fact that he was given little in the way of a transfer budget didn’t help matters and you only have to look at what has happened to the club since Benitez left to realise that he may have had a point. An ageing, unbalanced and expensively-assembled side (since Benitez) have struggled at both home and abroad and they’re now on the fourth manager in just under a year. Mourinho normally makes one great side, then rides off into the sunset with his reputation enhanced once they’ve achieved what he set out for them, and he rarely ever leaves a lasting legacy wherever he’s been.

Benitez recently turned down the Sampdoria job, revealing that he was holding out for a move back to the Premier League: “Sampdoria was very serious, very professional and they have a project. My idea is to find a club that can match my desire, my expectations to challenge for trophies. This time (Sampdoria) was really good, I was really pleased as they were thinking of me but I am waiting for maybe another option. The priority is England but I have to be ready for any other challenge. I try to find someone that will be at the top and take on the challenge for trophies, the Premier League, Champions League, Europa League so something that you can win.”

He does have a seven-year affiliation with Liverpool, which may put off some clubs, even Liverpool themselves this summer in their search for Kenny Dalglish’s successor, but he’s now been out of work since December 2010, which is a staggering amount of time for such a qualified manager. He’s also known to be difficult to work with, and he’s about as far removed from the happy-go-lucky image often portrayed by someone like Harry Redknapp as you could possibly. He’s a serious man, but a world-class coach at the same time, tactically astute, with a better transfer record than many give him credit for and he turned, for a season, Liverpool into genuine title contenders in 2008-9, which is no mean feat.

The Tottenham job looked to be ideal for Benitez, so to miss out on it will come as a bitter blow. His stock is certainly lower than it once was and he’s started to give off an air of desperation in his search for gainful employment. He nearly got the Chelsea job after they sacked Andre Villas-Boas at the turn of the year, only to see the club hand it to his assistant Roberto Di Mateo and we all know how that one turned out.

Given his pedigree and CV, you can’t blame Benitez for remaining principled in search for his next club. He’s simply not willing to take over a club that’s not capable of challenging for trophies, but with Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City all fairly set in that regard, he’s options look slim.

Liverpool are a no-go at the moment, and Tottenham have a new manager. Chelsea have Roberto Di Matteo, so to my mind, that’s the only realistic suggestion should the former interim boss have a bad start, but with Pep Guardiola waiting in the wings and in need of a fresh challenge, they have a ready-made replacement with a better reputation and Di Matteo really only looks to be keeping Guardiola’s seat warm in the Stamford Bridge dugout for a year or so.

Benitez may have a strong preference for a return to the Premier League, but his options look severely limited at present. He’s caught between not quite being the the new ‘in’ thing nor the vastly experienced coach in the Heynckes, Del Bosque, Trapattoni bracket which always seem to find work somewhere or other. His criteria are clearly defined but this rules out the majority of prospective clubs in the process. One thing is for certain, he won’t want to stay on the market for too long, otherwise, as our good friend Alan Curbishley will surely testify to, football has a funny habit of moving on quickly without you, and it would be a huge shame for such a talented coach to be left by the wayside, merely stuck doing the rounds as an undervalued, supremely overqualified TV pundit.

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