How ironic that the publication of Benitez’s book on his European adventures with Liverpool between 2005 and 2010 almost coincided with his appointment at Chelsea, a club that the Reds clashed with on four dramatic knockout occasions during that time. Benitez will not be adding another Champions League title to his CV in 2013, but given Liverpool’s current parlous state, this tome serves as a stark reminder of how competitive he made the Anfield side against the European greats.
There is a certain view of Benitez as a rigid and emotionless man, forever scribbling in notebooks and rather inflexible, only interested in “facts”. The latter is a reference to how the Spaniard delivered a mocking but humorous attack on Alex Ferguson during the 2009 season when Liverpool were top of the pile in the English Premiership. Their eventual failure to land the title that season was more down to United’s brilliance and late comebacks, as Benitez points out here, but the story was only going to ever be about Rafa and his “rant”. Liverpool won ten out of their last eleven Premiership games. The press had another agenda.
Football is in the soul of Benitez but his obsession with detail and competitive edge is not soulless. You would guess that he is the kind of manager who works on Christmas day for to get an edge on the competition. His tactical analysis touches on different formations - even changing one after a few minutes to throw the opposition - and how defence and attack are inextrivcably linked. This runs alongside far more simple messages that are expertly delivered. It does not matter if they score or you score, “keep playing the same way”. His messages from the heart are ones that still stir Liverpool fans today. It is this man of detail who also said: “We are Liverpool. We can win.”
Such statements must have been far from anyone’s mind during half time at Istanbul when AC Milan were 3-0 up in the 2005 final. The Spaniard could see that changes were necessary as his carefully laid out plans were shot to pieces by Kaka. After that stunning six minute spell at the beginning of the second half when Liverpool drew level, Benitez showed his calm and authority by moving Gerrard to right back during extra time as bodies and players began to drop. Even in the glorious aftermath of these occasions, Rafa will bend a player’s ear as they walk off the pitch, just so they could remember it there and then.
The fall from grace is also covered under a period were the American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, ran the club like a business as Benitez claimed he became more of “a bank manager”. He almost gave Liverpool another European final in the lower tier Europe League but glory was snatched by another mistake on the field of play. The honeymoon was well and truly over.
There is no doubt that Benitez’s specialist subject was the Champions League. His Liverpool beat Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan. His insight and tactics, the pressing up the pitch and the forward thinking to keep even the best players in the world quiet, are the stuff of Anfield folklore. Even if there is a bit of self-congratulation going on here, it is not overly apparent. Benitez might not be a Special One, but he has the nous to match old foe Jose Mourinho at least one more time.