Tim Stannard reports on the return to Real Madrid of Rafael Benitez, at least until Christmas...
La Liga Loca has seen it all before: that rictus grin, clenched jaw and look of a constipated ventriloquist reciting the terms of his divorce papers through the medium of an oversized chicken. Florentino Pérez had made his bed with Rafa Benítez and now he had to lie on it.
To be fair to Rafa the Gaffer, it’s not really his fault that he’s in now charge of club where less than 20% of polled supporters want him to be there and the players have been in very public support of the previous manager.
Perhaps that’s why the trigger-happy club president took pity on his new manager and gave him a three-year deal. Bearing in mind that not winning the Champions League is cause for dismissal in the Spanish capital, Liverpool might still get their man in the summer of 2016, or even by Christmas, with the new/old boss making a return to Anfield with pockets stuffed with euros.
But all this sounds a little mean on Benítez, returning to the club where he began an epic coaching career than now spans 11 teams from Inter Milan to Extremadura. When laid out on the table, the Spaniard’s medal haul is impressive with trophies at Valencia, Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea and Napoli: a scattering of leagues, cups and a Champions League title thrown in for good measure. In that respect, Benítez is no Manuel Pellegrini – the last coach Florentino Pérez appointed without being overthrilled with the decision. Indeed, Rafa is overqualified when compared to Bernd Schuster, who ended up winning La Liga.
Of course, the critics will say that Rafa’s glory days were some time ago, and that one of them owed itself largely to a midfielder called Steven Gerrard. And that Benítez was only appointed because he was the least bad option of the coaches that weren’t already off the market. Like Jurgen Klopp. And Carlo Ancelotti.
However, the presentation was genuinely touching, with the Madridileño thrilled and honoured to be back at a club that he calls home. It was in stark contrast to the unveilings of José Mourinho.
The Special One was happy to point out that he definitely wasn’t embarking on a dream move, while Carlo Ancelotti seemed to be thinking: “Oh Dear Lord, what have I done? Where are my ciggies?” after 17 questions in a row about Cristiano Ronaldo. Another criticism levelled at Benítez is that the goateed one is not really a player’s manager, the type to grow close bonds and josh and jape. But that’s no bad thing in a world populated by headphone-sporting billionaire sociopaths.
The style of football played at Napoli over the past two seasons should also be an indicator that Rafa isn’t as dour and defensive as many may think. Indeed, the sometimes rather spiffy football played by the Serie A side actually made games in Italian football vaguely watchable. Especially when Raúl Albiol was doing his footballing stylings at the back.
While it may be hugely entertaining to make fun of poor (but wealthy) Rafa, the new Bernabéu bossman should at least be given a chance. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Benítez knows exactly what he has let himself in for. The Real Madrid job is largely a deeply unpleasant experience that can take years off a life. This notion of forewarned is forearmed might be enough to carry Rafa through... at least until Christmas.