Benitez is just stubborn enough to make it work at Chelsea
SIDELINE CUT:In the memoir he published at the age of 27 (with no-frills title of Gerrard: My Autobiography), Steven Gerrard threw considerable light on the peculiar charisma of Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard’s spectacular return to English football, where he will attempt to manage the fascinatingly dysfunctional carnival that is Chelsea FC, inevitably brings his previous turn as Liverpool boss to mind.
Benitez was and remains a beloved figure around Anfield. Even after he was sacked by the club after the 2009-10 season, he wasn’t quite ready to flee the north east, maintaining his home, a New-Brutalism pile called Lindisfarne, in the Wirral and also a strong sentimental attachment to his former club.
There was nothing forced about the emotion that Benitez displayed last year when he was thanked at the Hillsborough commemorative ceremony at Anfield.
The gesture and the warm reaction of the fans left Benitez openly teary and as evidently locked into the club just as much as any of the former gods of the Kop who sit in the stands, winter-coated and greying, their presence a vivid reminder of how just how far Liverpool have fallen from their position of unassailable greatness.
Benitez was, depending on one’s view, the manager who came closest to guiding Liverpool to its first league success since 1990 or an outrageously lucky general whose period in charge revolved around the fabled comeback in the Champions League final of 2005, a second-half fantasy that had as much to do with fate as managerial acumen.
But Benitez was stubborn and suffused with an unshakeable self-belief and as Stevie G recalled in one episode, which highlights the fact that the lifestyle of the Premier League gang never strays too far from high farce, he had his own way of taking care of business.
“When the karaoke gets started, all sense gets drowned out,” Gerrard writes, setting the scene for a team night out which ended with Craig Bellamy, the volatile Welsh man, attacking John Arne Riise, Liverpool’s reliable and expressionless full-back, with a golf-club.
The team was on a training trip in Portugal and pleased with the general attitude and sharpness on the football ground, Rafa gifted the squad with a night on the town on the understanding that they return by midnight. The curfew was predictably broken and, as captain, Stevie G agonised over his failure to return his men to base and also to address the brewing hostility between the Welsh man and the recalcitrant Norwegian. It turned out that Bellamy was aggrieved by John Arne’s reluctance to get up on stage and sing a bit of Rod Stewart.
“I did notice a bit of handbags between Riise and Bellamy which led to a bigger incident later on when Bellamy hit Riise with a golf club,” Stevie reflects gloomily.
But his mood lifted sharply as he recalled how Rafa dealt with the incident the next morning, fining the quarrelling singers, then having them shake hands and quickly putting the incident right. It further convinced Gerrard that Benitez had a genius for international diplomacy of the footballing kind.
If so, he is going to need it this winter. With Chelsea, Benitez is going to have tougher problems than karaoke rows on his hands, not least in winning over a fan base that is generally suspicious of his sudden appointment and in figuring out how to solve the puzzle that Fernando Torres has become.
The pre-dawn sacking of Roberto Di Matteo after Wednesday night’s Champions League loss to Juventus was the most explicit statement of Roman Abramovich’s impatience for a dynastic period of glory at Stamford Bridge. There was something dark about the swiftness of the replacement.
All of the attention and speculation will centre on whether Benitez can sate Abramovichs insatiable quest for a manager who is either very like Pep Guardiola or very actually Pep Guardiola.
Already, the spice in Alex Ferguson’s remark that Benitez was “lucky” to get back in the game with Chelsea marks the renewal of the mutual dislike which characterised their relationship when Benitez managed Liverpool.
Similarly, Arsene Wenger’s thoughtful observation on Benitez’s willingness to accept a contract that lasts until the end of the season was a subtle way of highlighting the fact that Rafa is, as of now, just a stop-gap measure.
But Benitez’s entire career has been about succeeding against the odds. He doesn’t really look like a manager – he can’t compete with Ferguson’s aura or Roberto Mancini’s sartorial grace or with Wenger’s hauteur. And yet players respect him.
At least one club has fallen for him and half of Liverpool will sigh wistfully when they watch him on Match of the Day this weekend, speaking his halting English with that saucy Scouse lilt to his Spanish accent. Next April, Benitez will return to Anfield leading the very club against whom he enjoyed so many tactical, edgy victories during his time in charge at Liverpool. Then he goes to Old Trafford on May 4th.
If things go to plan, then the entire season could well hinge on the outcome of that match. Right now, Benitez is probably the only person in Chelsea who imagines that he can get Chelsea to play football in a way that pleases its fans and, most importantly, its restless owner.
It’s a bit trickier than teaching Craig Bellamy the correct etiquette with a eight iron. In fact, it’s probably the most stressful job in football right now.
But Benitez is just about bold and mad enough to believe he can make them love him.