Benitez took over at Chelsea in 2012 after Roberto di Matteo’s dismissal, with the team already all but eliminated from the Champions League and clinging to a top four spot in the league after four games without a win.
The former Liverpool boss wasn’t the most popular appointment with fans, due to his association with the Reds, with a few fans showing their displeasure in banner form, but it was a different story with the club’s owner.
Speaking to FourFourTwo for our December issue, a manager’s special which is out on Tuesday (November 19), Benitez recalls the praise he received after keeping the Blues in the top three domestically and winning the Europa League.
“The main thing for Abramovich was to be in the top three – that was his priority,” he explains.
“There was animosity from some fans, but I can show you a lot of messages from players, [director] Marina Granovskaia, [Roman] Abramovich and [technical director] Michael Emenalo. When we played two friendlies at the end of the season against Manchester City in New York, they took me to dinner and said, ‘Thanks very much’.”
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Rafa’s Chelsea were the first team to win the Champions League followed by the Europa League in back-to-back seasons, seeing off a Basel side starring a young Mo Salah in the semi-finals and beating Benfica in a tense final in Amsterdam.
Branislav Ivanovic scored the decisive goal, late in stoppage time, and Benitez has praised his staff for the set-piece drills which brought about that winner.
“Benfica had zonal marking, but with a diagonal line. We were trying to block the last man and attack with Ivanovic at the back post,” he recalls.
“We practiced in training and Juan Mata was a disaster kicking the ball! But in the last minute of the final, we got a corner, Mata kicked the ball perfectly, Ivanovic scored and we won.”
Read the full interview with Rafa Benitez in the December 2019 issue of FourFourTwo. In a managers special, Rafa gives us the lowdown on Liverpool, Mike Ashley and Real Madrid, and former Ostersund miracle-worker Graham Potter outlines his ambitions with Brighton. We also catch up with former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson, who shares his 10-point plan to ensure success in the dugout, and hear how ex-Rangers and Leeds defender David Robertson ended up in a war zone leading Real Kashmir. Elsewhere, we remember the darkest hours that helped Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Brian Clough, Carlo Ancelotti and more forge incredible careers, find out why Diego Simeone became one of the decade's most decorated managers, and hail the maddest gaffers of all time.
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