x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Chelsea v Liverpool: Rafa Benitez on the Bridge to nowhere

Rafa Benitez is back at Anfield, but not in the circumstances he long envisaged as Chelsea's interim manager returns to his spiritual home.

Rafael Benitez, right, speaking here with Juan Mata, will take his Chelsea team to Liverpool where his family is based. Steve Bardens / Getty Images
Rafael Benitez, right, speaking here with Juan Mata, will take his Chelsea team to Liverpool where his family is based. Steve Bardens / Getty Images

It was an unworthy end. A tame defeat, with the opening goal gifted to hated opponents, that somehow summed up a season where much was expected and little accomplished. A shamefaced lap of honour followed, amid the sense that an era was ending.

And so it duly did with Rafa Benitez's dismissal a month after that May 2010 loss to Chelsea, all but sealing the Londoners' last league title.

It was the Spaniard's last game at Anfield, his penultimate as Liverpool manager, at the conclusion of a fractious failure of a season. Now, three years later, he is back for the first time and in a situation few envisaged during Benitez's six-year reign on Merseyside.

Chelsea's interim manager will be in the away dugout. He will probably be cheered there, too, despite a rivalry between the two clubs that became spiteful during his time at Anfield. His popularity at Anfield is one reason for his unpopularity at Stamford Bridge.

This is Benitez, the methodical manager who divides opinion with surgical precision.

His detractors are many, often found in London, his devotees numerous, including many among the Reds' support. He is the one Chelsea employee Liverpudlians permit themselves to like; his £50 million (Dh279.7m) forward, Fernando Torres, who agitated to leave Liverpool, falls into a very different category.

Many hope Benitez will be back, and not merely for 90 minutes at the helm of Chelsea. Because of his impending unemployment, when his interim spell at Stamford Bridge concludes, he will be available. He will be conveniently located, too. For Benitez's disciples, and since his Liverpool's remarkable Uefa Champions League victory in 2005, they are a sizeable band, he is the king over the water.

Quite literally, as Benitez's Wirral residence is on the other side of the river Mersey.

He has neither moved house nor moved on. "Liverpool is where my family lives now," he said. The sense remains that Liverpool is Benitez's ideal job, too. "I know I will return to Liverpool as coach one day, almost certainly," he said earlier this month.

Last summer, after Kenny Dalglish's dismissal, Benitez hoped to be reappointed. He wasn't.

Brendan Rodgers was preferred, the owners Fenway Sports Group taking the futuristic choice and, after Dalglish's return backfired, looking to distance Liverpool from their past. But a reunion shines a light on two managers.

Benitez left Liverpool in seventh place after his sixth and poorest season at the club. Three years on, they are seventh again. This is a fourth successive unsatisfactory league campaign and it is only natural that the Spaniard's return has some feeling nostalgic. Liverpool were in the last four in Europe in three of his first four seasons, reaching two Champions League finals, winning improbably in Istanbul in 2005.

Rodgers's quest is to persuade everyone, from boardroom to the terraces, that progress is being made, despite Liverpool's inconsistency and the enduring uncertainty if they are actually heading in the right direction. He is rightly afforded leeway; Liverpool's decline from 2009 to 2012 was dramatic.

Yet before it began, Benitez had constructed their most scintillating side since the 1980s. They took 86 points in 2008/09 with Torres and Steven Gerrard, opponents today, dovetailing in devastating fashion in attack, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, now rivals in el clasico, twinned and terrific in midfield.

It was a modern-day golden age for Liverpool. Compared to the subsequent four seasons, his first five years in charge were glorious times. And yet Benitez's legacy is a divisive one.

Some players would not welcome him back. Nor would a section of the support; they are able to appreciate Benitez's achievements but remember the civil war at the club in 2010, the politicking and the infighting, the unending arguments about squad rotation, net spend, and a stubborn Spaniard.

Nor will they forget twin Champions League semi-final wins over Chelsea at Anfield, in 2005 and 2007, that made Benitez's reputation in Liverpool and, long before he was appointed by Roman Abramovich, destroyed his chances of acceptance at Stamford Bridge.


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