x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'Waiter' Benitez is unfairly maligned

Unkindly labelled 'the fat Spanish waiter' by rival fans, the Chelsea manager has never got the plaudits he deserves.

Rafa Benitez has an awkward, detached demeanour, says our columnist - but possesses good tactical acumen.
Rafa Benitez has an awkward, detached demeanour, says our columnist - but possesses good tactical acumen.

Love him or hate him, you have to admire the man's sheer single-mindedness. It is a good job that Rafa Benitez cares little for love; for him, in the land of the English Premier League, there is none at all.

On Sunday, his Chelsea team crushed Aston Villa 8-0 in arguably the season's most complete performance by any team. He seems to have found a solution to the Fernando Torres conundrum. And playing David Luiz in central midfield could turn out to be a tactical masterstroke. Just like that, Chelsea are back in the title race.

Other managers would be hailed for performing such a feat.

Not Benitez.

Respect has never been forthcoming for the Spaniard. Never mind that this is the man that last broke the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly, winning the Primera Liga with Valencia in 2002 and 2004; who led Valencia to a Uefa Cup triumph in 2004; who almost won the Premier League with Liverpool and, of course, the man who masterminded the "Miracle of Istanbul" when Liverpool won the Uefa Champions League in 2005.

Perhaps it is his awkward, detached demeanour. Or that he simply does not care. As one of his former players, Dietmar Hamann, said: "Rafael Benitez isn't big on relationships, but in my mind he is pure managerial genius."

It is genius that is seemingly lost on all, except perhaps Liverpool supporters. Chelsea fans, for well-documented reasons, refuse to chant his name or accept him. Rival fans meanwhile, armed with tribal narrow-mindedness and Twitter accounts, persist with their witless characterisation of him as "the fat Spanish waiter".

What is less understandable is the reluctance by certain sections of the media to acknowledge Benitez's achievements in a country where far less successful coaches such as Harry Redknapp and Sam Allardyce are often lauded.

If there is one aspect of the game Benitez does better than anyone else, it is tactics. His deployment of zonal marking when he joined Liverpool remains one of the many sticks that have, wrongly, been used to beat him with.

In fact, after an admittedly difficult first term, Liverpool had the Premier League's second-best defensive records in his second and third seasons, and the third best in his last three.

Then there was that January 2009 news conference, where Benitez, reading from a handwritten script, listed a series of offences by Sir Alex Ferguson that had gone unpunished over the years, and claimed the Manchester United manager was fearful of Liverpool's title challenge.

With indecent glee, the press pounced on it as Benitez's "Keegan moment" and the day Liverpool lost the 2008/09 title race to United. It is yet another unfounded myth; last month, The National columnist Andrew Cole wrote that after that day Benitez "lost the plot". In reality, no such thing happened. While Liverpool drew their three games immediately after the incident, their results actually improved from then on.

From the beginning of March, traditionally "Fergie mind games" season, Liverpool won 10 matches (including a stunning 4-1 victory at Old Trafford) and drew one while Manchester United won nine, lost two and drew one. Those, as the man himself would say, are the facts.

Benitez's image has also suffered because of his rivalry with the media darling Jose Mourinho, whom he most famously outwitted in the 2005 Champions League semi-final. He then repeated the trick in 2007.

Brilliant European performances illuminated Benitez's time at Liverpool. In all, the Reds reached two Champions League finals, a semi-final and a quarter-final. In the victorious 2004/05 campaign, Benitez's Liverpool overcame Fabio Capello's Juventus in the quarter-final, Mourinho's Chelsea in the semi-final and Carlo Ancelloti's AC Milan in that astonishing final. Not bad for a Spanish waiter.

And perhaps nothing sums up Benitez more than half time in Istanbul as Liverpool trailed the Italian giants 3-0. There were, whatever some Liverpool fans like to think, no rousing Churchillian speeches; just a few motivational words and a 10-minute tactical analysis. Facing humiliation, Benitez's pragmatism paved the way for his finest hour.

The obvious assertion is that while he is a brilliant tactician, he is not a great man-manager, and certainly not one who will bend to the whims of star players, as Steven Gerrard found out in Benitez's early days at Liverpool. As Hamann said, he does not do relationships.

But, should Chelsea fans put aside their self-defeating prejudices they would recognise that these are exactly the kind of qualities that are needed to address a dressing room that has systematically seen off some of the best managers in the world, including their beloved Mourinho.

Sunday's thrashing of Aston Villa proved Benitez's tactical acumen could yet bring success.

And at long last, even those hard-to-please gentlemen of the press and television seem to be giving him his dues.

Grudgingly, of course.

Whether the Chelsea fans ever will, however, is an entirely different matter. It is unlikely Benitez will lose any sleep over it.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

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