Newcastle United's Spanish manager returns to Anfield where he was in charge for six years
Rafa Benitez will get the applause he deserves from Liverpool supporters
Merseyside remains the closest thing to home for Rafa Benitez. It is where his family reside, his migration point when he has a day off, though on those days his mind still whirs with work, with tactical details, with battles to wage.
Madrid may be Benitez’s native city but it ceased to be the compass-point for his ambitions when his "dream job", as manager of Real Madrid ended so abruptly.
Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Napoli. Benitez has had many illustrious addresses. He has won European trophies with Liverpool, with Chelsea, and with Valencia.
It always seemed an unlikely kink in the career-path of one of European football’s giants of the technical area when, 18 months ago, he returned to English football. It was after an absence of six years that had been interrupted only by a stay at Chelsea - where he endured the demeaning title ‘interim manager’, and won the Europa League - and took on what looked like a temporary challenge.
Newcastle United seemed an odd fit because they had sunk so low.
They seemed an even odder fit, when, with Benitez’s 10-game salvation attempt having failed, they became his Championship employers. Barely a decade had passed since Benitez had lifted the European Cup at Liverpool and here he was accepting the invitation to manager in the second tier.
He had begun the 2015/16 season in charge of Madrid, boss to Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos. He embarked on the 2016/17 season planning how his team might cope without Moussa Sissoko.
Benitez’s decision to turn a stop-gap spell with Newcastle into a long-haul commitment will forever endear him to that city, and to a famously expressive set of supporters. He brought Newcastle back to the Premier League at the first attempt, and in some style.
He is a class act.
Having Benitez in the top division is a boon to English football, which likes to congratulate itself on it magnetic attractiveness to the most charismatic and applauded coaches in the game.
Benitez privately smiles to himself when he hears the Premier League being lauded for having Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp all pawing at the top echelons of its ladder. He should be bracketed alongside the brat-pack at the summit. He has accumulated prizes far more glittering than Conte or Klopp have.
At 57, he is only three years older than his long-time sparrer, Mourinho. Indeed, Benitez referred to himself, ahead of the visit of Liverpool to Newcastle on Sunday as “getting older but still a young manager".
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The subject of his long-term future cropped up for several reasons: One, the unlikely, imaginary scenario in which Bayern Munich contact him about the vacancy there. Two, the uncertainty over his relationship with Newcastle’s chief patron, Mike Ashley, with whom Benitez has felt frustrated over transfer expenditure. Three, Liverpool. His old club, Klopp’s exhilarating, defensively-fragile Liverpool, had a poor September. Benitez was asked if he would ever go back. “You never know,” he replied.
There will always be part of him that is Red Rafa, and Benitez is not ready to make the remainder of his career a series of Red Adair adventures, acting as firefighter to stave off crises, as he was asked to do at a Chelsea in 2012/13 and initially at Newcastle.
So far this season, Benitez’s promoted Newcastle steer a mid-table course, but not with the sort of smooth progress Benitez would like. They lost to Brighton last weekend, ending a run of three successive wins.
He is not happy with the make-up of his squad and said so over the summer. Liverpool recognise that aspect of Benitez. He had prickly relationships with several of his bosses at Anfield, where, after a dramatic European Cup triumph – 3-0 down to AC Milan at half time, victory on penalties after a breathtaking comeback – in Istanbul at the end of his first season, he spent five more years.
That is a very long spell by modern standards, much the longest of Benitez’s career.
It is a career that has attracted some labels. A few are rude – Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson made scathing remarks during spiky disputes that Benitez helped make public. Some Madrid players derided his management style – and some are plain unfair.
Benitez is thorough, calculating, and values balance in his teams. But to caricature him as a cagey, defensive manager is misguided. His Napoli were often enchanting to watch.
Naples suited him better than flashier Milan, where he had an unhappy half a season with Inter. Valencia, where he won the Primera Liga title twice, suited him better than Madrid. Liverpool and Newcastle appreciate him more than west London, where he arrived at Chelsea amid scepticism and, though successful in his short period there, there was no expectation of a permanent stay.
He will not be greeted with rousing applause, but perhaps some polite clapping, when he returns to Chelsea with Newcastle in December.
But on Sunday he will hear loud and clear, from the high away section of St James’ Park, how much love there is in Liverpool still for Rafa, ever the Red.