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Can Rafael Benitez defy the critics at the Bernabeu?

Rafa Benitez has endured a tough start to his dream job. A summer of transfer sagas, goalless draws and criticism from former players, journalists and long standing rivals have meant that Benitez’s return to Madrid has been far from smooth.

Benitez bale 2015

Benitez goes back to Madrid 20 years after leaving. In 1995 he left Real Madrid B to expand his horizons after spending the majority of his playing career at Castilla, Real’s B team. Rafa can rightly call Real and Madrid home. But as we all know home is not always the easiest place to be. Especially when home is the most demanding football club in the world.

One look at Benitez’s CV and it is clear that pressure is something he is used to. Managing the top clubs across Europe can be a stressful job. But on the whole Benitez has had success during his time at the elite teams of the European game.

The first example of this came at Valencia. At a club which is always expected to challenge the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Benitez greatly surpassed expectations. It is true Benitez inherited a superb team at Valencia, a side who had reached back to back Champions League finals. Benitez, however, took the club to the next level. In his first season in charge he ended Valencia’s 31 year wait as they became champions of Spain. His middle season was a disappointment but his third and final campaign at the Mestalla was historic. Benitez once again won La Liga, this time with three rounds remaining. Then, against a Didier Drogba inspired Marseille in the final, Benitez clinched the UEFA cup.

Citing a lack of control over new signings, Benitez left Valencia in June 2004, as one of the best coaches in Europe and as UEFA’s best manager for the 2003/04 season. A host of Europe’s best clubs were chasing Benitez. He chose one of the biggest of them all. Liverpool are undoubtedly one of the greatest football clubs in the world. Yet when Benitez joined the club in the summer of 04, they were in a malaise. They had failed to win the League title in 14 years and the European cup for 20 years. Benitez would end one drought and come close to ending the other.

With the key addition of Xabi Alonso, Benitez and Liverpool stormed to the club’s fifth European crown. Incredible comebacks were the epitome of the Reds’ famous triumph, in the final game of the group stage against Olympiacos and most famously of all in the final against AC Milan in Istanbul. In the following season Benitez continued his cup heroics by winning the FA Cup in dramatic fashion against West Ham. But from then on things began to unravel. Liverpool once again got the Champions League final in the following season but were outclassed by Milan in Athens.

Benitez was also close to winning the league in the 2008/09 season but dropping points against smaller teams at Anfield and bizarre mind games cost Liverpool the title. In his final season in charge, Benitez oversaw a shambolic campaign. The club went from 2nd to 7th in the space of 12 months and were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stages. Benitez left the club by mutual consent. He departed still adored by the majority of the fans. That cannot be said for his most recent ventures.

Since leaving Liverpool, Benitez has managed a trio of the best sides in Europe. Inter, Chelsea and Napoli have all called upon the Spaniard’s services in recent years. He only lasted half a season at Inter, failing to reproduce the success that Jose Mourinho had achieved at the club in the previous campaign, with the Portuguese manager claiming Benitez destroyed the best team in Europe in six months.

Benitez went onto manage another of Mourinho’s former clubs, Chelsea. Replacing fan favourite Roberto Di Matteo, the former Liverpool boss was not welcomed with open arms at the Bridge. He was subjected to a frenzy of abuse on his debut at home against Manchester City. But Benitez guided the club to a top 4 finish plus a Europa League triumph and for all the backlash to his appointment, he left the team in a much better place than when he joined them.

With his reputation restored Benitez left England for his next great challenge, Napoli. The city was abuzz when the Spaniard joined the southern Italian outfit, the people of Naples thought he would be the man to bring the Serie A title back to the club for the first time since the days of Maradona and co. His first season was promising, with a Coppa Italia triumph but his second and last season was an outright failure. The side finished 5th in Serie A and lost to Dnipro in the Europa League semi-final. Unlike at Valencia or Liverpool, Napoli fans were not upset when Benitez left their club.

Now to Real Madrid. His last three jobs have been mixed but they have hailed five trophies in four combined seasons, although they were not all of the highest calibre. Yet Benitez’s career overall shows he wins honours and plenty of them. Many coaches have won titles at the Bernabeu and not lasted long, the question is how long will Benitez stay in charge of the Spanish giants?

Conclusions from pre-season games are always difficult to put forward. But if they are anything to go by, it seems that Benitez is already enforcing his style on Los Blancos. They have looked defensively solid but struggled for goals, a trend that was seen at both Inter and Chelsea when the Spainard was coach. Benitez has never been an overly attacking coach and even though many Real fans will demand positive, expansive and free-flowing football, their new coach is unlikely to answer their wishes.

The big change at Real Madrid so far under Benitez has been the role of Gareth Bale in the starting 11. Under the Spaniard, Bale has been moved into the number 10 role from his customary position as a left winger. Both Bale and more importantly the club, at least at boardroom level, want this change in role for the Welshman. It has not been a convincing change so far but there is still plenty of time for the tactical switch to pay off. The form of Bale, which was way below par last season, could well influence how successful Benitez’s time at Real is.

Benitez has a great record in management since joining Valencia 14 years ago. He is almost guaranteed to win titles at the most successful club in Spain. Whether just winning honours will be enough for Benitez at the Bernabeu, only time will tell.

Written by Richard Hinman

Richard Hinman

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