Spaniard has lost more than he has won against Portuguese counterpart, but those victories have tended to be memorable and significant
For Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez may be the inferior rival but one capable of inflicting damage
Jose Mourinho’s career can be measured in trophies. It can also be assessed in rivalries. There are plenty of both.
If Antonio Conte is a recent addition, the list was already lengthy, the willingness to make it personal established long ago. Claudio Ranieri, Arsene Wenger, Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Mancini, Pep Guardiola: Mourinho has long feuded with the men he has replaced and who have replaced him, those he has opposed and, in most cases, overcome.
Yet one rivalry has been more enduring and, at times, more bitter, than the others: Mourinho against Rafa Benitez.
This feels a feud in his 14th year between between career managers and cautious tacticians who have both managed Inter Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid. With Newcastle United no threat to Manchester United, the Portuguese played the diplomat on Friday.
But it may prove a temporary truce. There would be no surprise if there is more bad blood after the final whistle.
Twin obsessives have been sufficiently preoccupied by each other that they have traded blows from different countries. It has been so all-consuming that even Benitez’s wife Montse has chipped in: “We tidy up his messes,” she said, when her husband was in charge of Madrid.
The ferocity of historic wars of words explains why Benitez was never accepted as Chelsea manager. Enmity was escalated, Mourinho devotees taking against the ‘Interim One’ long before his short-term stint in a job that once belonged to the ‘Special One’.
Everything became personal.
In a role reversal, Mourinho then returned to Chelsea to take over from Benitez.
More often, the Spaniard has followed the Portuguese. He was Mourinho’s direct replacement at Inter Milan. He was a successor at both Chelsea and Madrid and, at each club, inherited both players attuned to Mourinho’s football and with a particular loyalty to the Portuguese.
Even when Benitez won the Uefa Champions League, it was a year after Mourinho had.
More charismatic, more quotable and more successful, Mourinho has won more of the arguments and more of their matches.
“Benitez won’t do better than me,” he insisted when the older man took over at Inter. He was right: the Spaniard was dismissed after six months. He had won the Intercontinental Cup - now called the Fifa Club World Cup - but Inter’s participation was a consequence of Mourinho’s side winning the Champions League.
“I expected at least a thank you,” Mourinho said. Later, and in a more acerbic comment, he said: “He destroyed the best team in Europe in six months.”
Not every comment has stood the test of time. “I don’t want to win the Europa League,” Mourinho said in a jibe at one of Benitez’s achievements at Chelsea. By last season, when it offered Manchester United their only route into the Champions League, he certainly did.
And it is an enmity defined by Europe. “At Liverpool, with a squad half the value of Chelsea, we twice knocked his Chelsea out of the Champions League,” Benitez once noted.
But for him, for Luis Garcia’s ghost goal in 2005 and Chelsea’s errant penalty-taking in 2007, Mourinho might be a four-time Champions League winner, arguably the greatest ever.
It may be why Benitez remains an irritant in what is actually not a tale of one rivalry as much as of two. The Newcastle manager’s history against Manchester United has certain similarities with his record against Mourinho.
In both cases, he has lost more than he has won but those victories have tended to be memorable and significant: there was a double in 2008/09, including a 4-1 victory at Old Trafford.
He beat both Mourinho’s Chelsea and United en route to winning the FA Cup in 2006. He can inflict damaging defeats.
And, unlike Mourinho’s other rivals, he is still facing him, 14 years on.