Rafa Benitez may not have conquered, but he continues to divide
By Rory Smith
At some point in Liverpool’s dead, still night, just hours after the news that Rafael Benitez would today be dismissed as manager of Inter Milan had broken, the wrought-iron fence which stands outside the Kop was festooned with white pieces of cloth, each one bearing a slogan. “Rafa come home,” read one. “Rafa is Scouse,” another. True, all were written in markedly similar handwriting, but the message they conveyed is accurate: they have not forgotten the Spaniard at Anfield. His shadow still looms large.
Yet, on the social networking sites and the fans’ forums, quite another message was emerging. Plenty of Liverpool supporters took a far from quiet pleasure in the demise of a man they blame for their team’s continuing travails. As his successor, Roy Hodgson, has pointed out, Benitez left Anfield with a squad that was simultaneously overstaffed and under-strength. He had clogged Melwood with driftwood and deadwood. He had, in a year of poor decisions, somehow undone the generally good work of his previous lustrum on Merseyside. For those who loathe his legacy, his shadow also looms, long and dark.
That, though, is Benitez: few managers, few characters in football divide more than the Spaniard. He is, to some, the winner of the Champions League, the UEFA Cup, two Spanish titles, the FA Cup and, most recently, the Club World Cup, the first manager to win major trophies with sides from Europe’s three big leagues. He is a tactical innovator, adept at maximising minimal resources to maximum effect. He produces sides – Valencia and the Liverpool of 2009, most notably – who play powerful, quick, effective football. He is warm and personable, possessed of a common touch.
To others, he is cold and calculating, a Macchiavellian plotter of almost compulsive belligerence. He is never happier than when he is at war with someone, something. He alienates players, chooses baffling systems, tinkers persistently. He thinks he is cleverer than he is, he is evasive and arrogant. His sides are stultifying, his success down to the spending of vast amounts of money he had at Anfield or the incompetence of others, as at Valencia. 2010, his annus horribilis, in which he lost two jobs – one by text, one by email – was simply the year his luck ran out.
It is a debate which will, most likely, continue to rage wherever he pitches up next, be it in the Premier League – a choice far preferred by his family, settled as they are in their home on the Wirral – or in Spain, where the task of recreating the success he enjoyed at Mestalla in breaking Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly would no doubt appeal. It would be futile to put one case above the other, so easily contradicted is every point.
There is one point that all should be able to agree on, though, including Benitez himself. The biggest mistake he made this year, these 12 months he will long to forget, was agreeing to succeed Jose Mourinho in June. As one of his staff at San Siro remarked, the Inter job was “un caramello avellenato.” A poisoned sweet. Tasty from the outside, rotten at the core.
Being appointed manager of the most successful club side in the world may appear a sinecure, a matter simply of keeping things ticking over, but Inter, as of the end of the Champions League final seven months ago, were a side built for the past. Most of their first XI, the Mourinho stalwarts, were past their prime, exhausted from producing one final push to further the mystique surrounding the Portuguese. Massimo Moratti, Inter’s owner, was tired of spending money after 15 years of profligate dreaming. The club was sated. There was no hunger left. Into the end of the banquet walked Benitez, entirely famished. It was never likely to work.
That, perhaps, is Benitez’s greatest failing. Timing. Unlike Mourinho, he does not know when to arrive and when to quit. He left Liverpool a year too late, a year after he might have walked into the Bernabeu widely respected around Europe. He came to Inter at the only time in their history when there was no work to be done, or work that anyone could achieve. It is a mistake he must not repeat, whenever he chooses to re-enter the market, if he wishes the arguments to subside, if he wants his legacy to be anything more than debate and doubt.http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/sport/rorysmith/100014630/rafa-benitez-may-not-have-conquered-but-he-continues-to-divide/