Have Napoli just landed themselves the best manager in world football?
It would be a quite a coup for a club that isn’t amongst Europe’s elite – I think it’s time to consider the evidence in favour of Rafa Benitez being, well, the true special one.
The only thing he has in common with the great Napoli hero Diego Maradona has been a comedy beard, but he might be the best chance the club has had of real success since the Argentinian legend inspired them to glory in Serie A and the UEFA Cup in the late 1980s. Still their only two Italian titles. Still their only European trophy.
Talk to any Liverpool fan about Benitez and he’ll still be regarded as a hero. I’ve always felt he was a very good coach who ultimately got carried away with his own self-importance around football. Away from football he is, by all accounts, a gentleman.
But the record he is so fond of talking about in press conferences and interviews actually stands up very well to scrutiny. Let’s start with the recent hot seat he has occupied, the hottest in football of course. Chelsea’s interim manager.
The fact his six month reign didn’t end up being a total, utter, unmitigated disaster is a great credit to the coaching skills and the determination of Benitez to leave a turbulent job with his reputation intact. His achievement at Stamford Bridge should actually enhance his reputation.
He won the battle with the fans, board and players by defiantly sending out well organised Chelsea teams to get results in the midst of controversy and chaos.
To win the Europa League, that most curious and sad of trophies, represented a great achievement from him and the teams he was picking. While it may be the ugly little brother of the Champions League, it’s actually not easy to win and those Thursday nights take their toll on a club.
He had constantly reassured fans – more accurately implored them – to trust that Chelsea WOULD finish in the top four of the EPL and secure a precious Champions League place for the new manager and the new season. The way Arsenal and Tottenham kept coming at them, this was another commendable, tiredness-defying effort needing considerable skill and sound selection from Benitez.
And perhaps most impressively, he didn’t walk away.
I disagree with those who felt the turning point was his infamous rant at Middlesbrough after an FA Cup win. I didn’t expect him to last 24 hours after criticising the board, let alone win a trophy.
His words didn’t galvanise, they were a spectacular sideshow, some fireworks for the 24-hour sports news brigade and twitter addicts. My theory is that he wasn’t sacked for it (wisely) because Chelsea’s bosses simply had sacking fatigue. Even for them it was a dismissal too far. No they weren’t ‘in to’ the interim but who else was going to save their season? In the end he did more than save it. Hazard, Mata, Luiz and co were flying…even Torres – HIS precious Torres – was scoring. Lampard quietly got a new contract. Some of the Chelsea fans really did end up quietly respecting Benitez.
This a man given the degrading ‘interim’ title despite being a top coach.
This a man who was hated by the fans on his arrival in November. I sat and listened to the level of abuse in his first game against Manchester City…the ‘fat Spanish Waiter’ was unwelcome to a painful degree.
This a man who replaced fans hero Roberto Di Matteo, months after the Italian had led Chelsea to the biggest prize in club football.
I’ve settled on admiration for the job he did at Chelsea having always appreciated his coaching prowess. What has frustrated me about Benitez is the feeling he has been the author of his own misfortune in the past few years.
He got very lucky (reputation-wise) when he left Liverpool, seen as the victim of ‘evil’ American owners Hick and Gillett.
The truth of the matter is that Benitez had become absorbed in his own importance as a coach, idolised for the 2005 Istanbul triumph and the team he had built, but talking utter rubbish in a press conference about AlexFerguson. I say rubbish – some of it was true – but his decision to snipe was counter-productive, pointless and reflected badly on him.
He had got too fond of his own tactical genius. 99 consecutive changes to his Liverpool team. Some of the tinkering unnecessary – football is not chess. The players are not pawns and pieces. The moment the manager thinks it’s ALL about his tactical nous is the moment his teams can start to suffer.
Then Inter Milan. For a man who is so fond of referring to himself as intelligent – trust me it grates in a press conference – why does he keep mentioning winning the World Club Championship with Inter Milan? Next he’ll be saying he did well to get Chelsea into the final! It’s a competition that is a mere extension of success elsewhere – not a wonderful achievement in it’s own right.
His spell at Inter Milan was underwhelming. Fact. (to use a rafarism)
And then to Chelsea. You may not be aware of this, but that long term job really could have been his if he’d approached it correctly. The board were very aware of his ability and open minded about his future.
I winced at his insular first presser as he bristled with the media, the Chelsea fans and his critics. Perhaps it was the frustration of a short contract boiling over from the start but he completely misunderstood the right of the fans not to want him there. It was a great opportunity missed to calmly explain himself properly – he hadn’t been half as disparaging about Chelsea as was claimed, had every right to stick up for Liverpool and all that was needed was an olive branch, even a trace of humour and self-deprecation. But he puffed himself and answered questions in a prickly manner. An own goal.
It got worse. After his Rafa-rant in February he took on the media again at the club’s training ground. It was painful to watch. Who was the more irritating? Contradictory Rafa not being able to properly explain his rant, or the pompous self-important tabloid journalist with delusions of grandeur trying to humiliate him? Both were taking the wrong approach in my view, over-estimating their own control of the situation as they bickered. I wished either had displayed a modicum of charm.
But Rafael Benitez isn’t without charm, so who was advising him at that point? Why was a man who is considerate and loyal enough to lay a rose at Anfield marking the death of a Hillsborough mother such a public relations anomaly?
Napoli President Aurelio de Laurentiis is to be congratulated for moving in where others have hesitated. He’s been typically ‘not shy’ about it as well hasn’t he – posting a picture of them shaking hands on twitter before we knew the deal was complete.
It’s too early to say whether the brilliant players in this exciting Napoli team will stay.
Edinson Cavani, one of my favourite players, would fit in to any team. What an asset he is, an update on the old fashioned number 9 – he heads, he smashes in from close range, then bangs in a free-kick from 40 yards. He’s the appetising, non-cannibalistic face of the Uruguayan attack. No wonder a price tag of more than $75 million hangs off him.
But there’s also Hamsik and Maggio and Zuniga. A great team if not quite having reached its full potential or possessing strength in depth as a squad.
Has Benitez been given the nod that some of these players will stay? That new blood will come in to enable them to mount a challenge for Serie A AND the Champions League.
If so, Napoli could erupt again. It’s a wonderful sight when they are winning. And Juventus and the Milans should be more than a little nervous.
Buoyed by his Chelsea finale, will this be the closest Benitez has been to his days at Valencia, then Liverpool. Expectations high – but not Chelsea high. What chance them being drawn in Chelsea’s Group in the Champions League?! Inevitable?
Rafael Benitez is a great coach. Really he is. And perhaps it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t always come across well to the public and media.
I’d really like to see him leave his thundering indignant volcano dormant and achieve great things for the Napoli fans under clear, light blue, skies above Vesuvius…
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport