Rafa Benitez: The Conqueror of La Liga Who Masterminded That Comeback in Istanbul

Rafa Benitez is number 35 in 90min’s Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next seven weeks.

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 Javier Irureta famously led Deportivo La Coruna to the title at the turn of the millennium.

But those three aside, no other manager has had the guile, wisdom and tactical knowledge to defeat Spain’s heavyweight duo in that time. Apart from one man – the grossly underappreciated Rafa Benitez.

A student of the game (quite literally), Benitez has been involved in management for over 30 years, managing some of the world’s biggest clubs – as well as taking home some of the game’s biggest accolades.

Rafael Benitez

But his success comes from humble beginnings and a willingness to graft, learn and understand his craft. He began doing that, in a coaching capacity at least, from the age of 26 – having already graduated with a degree in physical education from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. 

A largely underwhelming playing career had followed that achievement, though Benitez did enjoy moderate success in the lower reaches of Spanish football.

Injuries, however, were an issue and eventually forced him to call time on his on-field career, leading Benitez back to Real Madrid – whose academy he had graduated from in his formative years – to take charge of Castilla B.

There, Benitez began getting the feel for winning. He won two league titles in 1987 and 1989, before succeeding Jose Antonio Camacho as Los Blancos’ Under-19 coach. League and cup success, including a double in 1993, eventually led him away from the club in search of senior level experience.

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. Unfortunately, relegation was to follow, but that allowed Benitez to refocus on doing what he loved most: learning.

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. 

Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez (R) talks

Again, Benitez earned promotion to La Liga at the first time of asking – finishing third behind Sevilla and Real Betis in a highly competitive division. That success, coupled with the departure of Hector Cuper to Inter, led to an approach from ambitious Valencia.

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, and Benitez achieved that from game one – a 1-0 success over La Liga title holders ?Real Madrid at the Mestalla.

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. 

That was magnificent. But Valencia weren’t done. They repeated the feat two seasons later, only this time it was coupled with success in Europe too – as Benitez’s side lifted the UEFA Cup.

Behind the scenes, though, Benitez’s relationship with the club was becoming strained. Los Ches had achieved incredible things under the Spaniard’s guidance, but he knew that the squad needed strengthening. Overachievement is word banded about all too often, but this really was a case in point – Valencia needed more, and they weren’t willing to back their manager – despite all he had achieved.

As a result, Benitez walked away and soon ended up at one of the most historic clubs in world football – Liverpool.

Career Honours
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)

Upon his arrival at Anfield – becoming the first Spaniard to manage in the Premier League in the process – he brought with him Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia, both of whom would go on to become firm fans favourites. He also persuaded Steven Gerrard to stay at the club, despite frenzied speculation that he would leave the club for Chelsea.

Liverpool football club (from L) Jamie C

Domestically, Liverpool struggled during his first season but it was a different story altogether on the European stage. Led by emotionally charged Gerrard, Benitez’s Reds fought back from the brink of elimination against Olympiacos to qualify for the knockout stages on goal difference.

From then on, they became a different side in Europe. Bettering Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus in the following rounds, Liverpool would come up against domestic rivals Chelsea in the semi-finals in a clash that would help establish a fierce rivalry between Benitez and Blues manager Jose Mourinho.

Luis Garcia’s controversial phantom goal was enough over the two legs to send Liverpool through to the final, with AC Milan awaiting in Istanbul. 

There, Benitez oversaw the greatest comeback in Champions League final history – as his side overturned a 3-0 deficit in the space of six sensational second half minutes – to defeat the Rossoneri on penalties, earning the Reds a historic fifth European crown.

Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard holds

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.

Inter Milan's Spanish coach Rafael Benít

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 – but against the odds went on to win the Europa League, as well as finishing third in the ?Premier League.


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.

Rafael Benitez

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.

Number 50: Marcelo Bielsa – El Loco’s Journey From Argentina to Footballing Immortality in Europe

Number 49: Vic Buckingham – How an Englishman Discovered Johan Cruyff & Pioneered Total Football

Number 48: Claudio Ranieri: A Ridiculed Tinkerman Who Masterminded One of Football’s Greatest Ever Achievements

Number 47: Bill Nicholson: Mr Tottenham Hotspur, the First Double Winning Manager of the 20th Century

Number 46: Sven-Goran Eriksson: The Scudetto Winning Shagger Who Never Solved the Lampard-Gerrard Conundrum

Number 45: Sir Alf Ramsey: The Man Behind the ‘Wingless Wonders’ & England’s Sole World Cup Triumph

Number 44: Antonio Conte: An Astute Tactician Whose Perfectionist Philosophy Reinvented the 3-5-2 Wheel

Number 43: Kenny Dalglish: The Beacon of Light in Liverpool’s Darkest Hour

Number 42: Massimiliano Allegri: The Masterful Tactician Who Won Serie A Five Times in a Row

Number 41: Sir Bobby Robson: A Footballing Colossus Whose Fighting Spirit Ensured an Immortal Legacy

Number 40: Luis Aragones: Spain’s Most Important Manager, the Atleti Rock and the Modern Father of Tiki-Taka

Number 39: Herbert Chapman: One of Football’s Great Innovators & Mastermind Behind the ‘W-M’ Formation

Number 38: Carlos Alberto Parreira: The International Specialist Who Never Shied Away From a Challenge

Number 37: Franz Beckenbauer: The German Giant Whose Playing Career Overshadowed His Managerial Genius

Number 36: ?Viktor Maslov: Soviet Pioneer of the 4-4-2 & the Innovator of Pressing


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