There are few managers over the past 35 years who have been able to break Barcelona and Real Madrid’s stranglehold of La Liga.
Radomir Antic and Diego Simeone each accomplished the feat for Atletico Madrid, while
Despite his prior accomplishments, his first dabbles outside of the Madrid bubble were unsuccessful. Short spells with Real Valladolid and Osasuna were exactly that. Short. But then came a turning point in the career of Benitez, as he was appointed manager of Segunda Division side Extremadura in 1997.
Working alongside Pako Ayesterán, who was the only positive to come out of that brief Osasuna stint, Benitez earned a surprise promotion to La Liga – finishing runner-up to Alaves after winning 23 of 42 league games that summer.
A year studying the game in both England and Italy allowed him to take on board new philosophies and further understand playing styles abroad – which he would take onto the training pitch as a coach, rather than just a manager.
That experience, along with his decade long credentials through the levels in Spain, earned him a return to the dugout – this time at Tenerife.
It was there where he would etch his name into footballing history, as he led Los Ches to two La Liga titles in the space of three seasons.
What was so impressive about Benitez’s side was that their success was based upon working as a team. There were no standout individuals to speak of, so egos were not out of control. Instead, their Champions League final escapades of the past two seasons were thrown out of the window, with a new chapter to be written instead.
This was a clean slate, a clean mind and a clear appetite for success. Setting the tone is often seen as the stepping stone for future glory,
From there on, Valencia went 13 games unbeaten and never really looked back, despite scoring just 51 goals over the course of the season. They won La Liga by seven points, winning their first top flight crown in 30 years.
|La Liga (2001/02 & 2003/04)|
|UEFA Manager of the Year (2003/04 & 2004/05)|
|UEFA Cup (2003/04)|
|UEFA Champions League (2004/05)|
|UEFA Super Cup (2005)|
|FA Cup (2005/06)|
|FA Community Shield (2006)|
|Supercoppa Italiana (2010 & 2014)|
|FIFA Club World Cup (2010)|
|UEFA Europa League (2012/13)|
|Coppa Italia (2013/14)|
|EFL Championship (2016/17)|
Victory saw Benitez become just the third manager in history to win the UEFA Cup and Champions League in successive seasons, following in the footsteps of Bob Paisley and Mourinho.
The Reds would then win the UEFA Super Cup and FA Cup in his second season in charge, but ultimately his time at Anfield will be tinged with regret at failing to win the Premier League – particularly after signing Fernando Torres in 2007.
A runners-up finish in the 2008/09 season was as good as it got, though that 86 point haul would have been enough to win the title in plenty of seasons gone by.
For all the good work he did, though, inconsistency had always remained a problem for Benitez – and after a significant decline the following season, he parted company with ?Liverpool in June 2010.
Benitez then rocked up at Inter, where he would endure the first real failure of his career. He spent just six months at San Siro before being dismissed, despite winning the FIFA Club World Cup.
He then took a couple of years out of the game before taking on his next managerial role, which shockingly came at Chelsea – despite his previous animosity with Mourinho, as well as the club’s fans.
His time in west London was quite frankly bizarre. His hostile relationship with the supporters (owing to his previous comments about the club) undermined his entire tenure, and his relationship with the board broke down after a couple of months – because of their unwillingness to commit to him beyond an ‘interim’ basis.
As a result, he announced with a few months of his reign left that he would be leaving at the end of the season –
A return to Italy beckoned next, with a two-year spell at Napoli providing mixed results. Benitez’s side qualified for the Champions League in his first season in charge, but suffered a dreaded case of second season syndrome – despite the ongoing goalscoring exploits of Gonzalo Higuain.
A surprise homecoming to Madrid, some 25 years in the making, followed as Benitez took charge of Real in June 2015, signing a three-year deal. However, as many skeptics expected, things didn’t work out at Los Blancos – as Benitez’s preferred style of play, and management, just didn’t fit in with the club’s ethos and expectations.
Although it was no surprise to see him lose his job just seven months later, it most definitely was a surprise when he rocked up at St. James’ Park to take charge of relegation threatened Newcastle.
Despite signing on for three years, Benitez was expected to leave if the Magpies were relegated to the Championship – which they were, despite his best efforts.
But, despite achieving all he has in the game, Benitez showed the kind of character he has – loyal, passionate and determined – by announcing his intention to guide the team back to the Premier League.
He delivered on his promise, winning the Championship title before stabilising and progressing the club in a way that hadn’t previously been seen under the tumultuous ownership of Mike Ashley.
His reward for doing so? Sadly, the exit door.
Benitez didn’t want to leave, far from it. But, like he has done in the past, he knew he was performing far beyond his means. His statement to the club’s fans was heartfelt, and shows the genuine connection that he had with the club’s fanbase – much like he did during his time at Liverpool.
And though he may not oversee the progressive stye of football that we see from many modern coaches, there can be no denying that Benitez is among the greats of club management – as a coach, a tactician and as a bloody nice human being.
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