Happy Birthday Rafa Benitez!
Born in Madrid Rafa was a part of Real Madrid’s Youth academy in the 1970’s before moving to Spain’s lower leagues to play for Castilla, Parla and Linares. At the age of 26, Rafa was invite to join Real Madrid’s coaching staff and he managed the Under 19’s and reserve team as well as becoming assistant manager of the senior team. He left Madrid in 1995 and went to manage Valladoid but was later sacked after only having two victories in 23 La Liga games, he also managed Osasuna but was again sacked having only won one game in nine.
He later had some success with Extremadura having led them into La Liga during the 1997/98 season but their chances of surviving there were slim due to having a small squad and not enough of a transfer budget to purchase new players. Defeat in relegation play-offs meant they went back down to Second Division but the manager did not stay wanting to study more so Benitez left and took a year off in 1999 to study training methods at Manchester United, Arsenal and in Italy. He returned to managing with Tenerife in the second division and the Canary Island club were promoted to La Liga in 2000/01. Benitez reputation was growing and bigger cubs were starting to show an interest.
Rafa took over Valencia in 2001, they were doing well in Europe having reached two successive Champions League finals, failing to win either of them. They had finished fifth, 17 points behind champions Real Madrid, the season before and fans were expecting big things from their new manager. Rafa soon won over the fans with his attacking style of play and his tactics earned Valencia their first title in 31 years, winning it by 7 points over Deportivo La Coruna. However, the following season they failed to follow up their title success and finished 5th 18 points behind Real Madrid. Valencia faced Liverpool in the Champions league and defeat them both home and away, they went through to the quarter-finals but where knocked out by Inter Milan. The 2003/04 season did not start off too well for Rafa at Valenica, he asked the club to invest in a new striker but they bought a winger instead but they were crowned Champions with three games to go. He was successful at Valencia but the rift between him and the owners was unbearable so when Liverpool came calling Benitez accepted their offer.
Before the season even began he had the task of trying to persuade Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard to stay at the club rather than make the move to London to join Chelsea. He inherited a good squad from Gerard Houllier but he wanted to add a few more players, his first was Spanish duo Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso. His first season was a bit of a disappointment in the league with the team finishing 5th but it was the cup competitions that built momentum as they reached the final in the domestic cup but lost to Chelsea in the final. The Reds also reached the final of the Champions League were they beat AC Milan on penalties after a dramatic come-back in the second half with goals from Gerrard, Smicer and Alonso. Some of the home games leading up to that incredible final were some of the best European nights at Anfield.
Rafa quickly cemented himself into the hearts of the Liverpool fans and the following season he added to the Reds trophy cabinet with an FA Cup win over West Ham. Although Liverpool performed well in their cup competitions, their league form was inconsistent. The Reds reached another Champions league final in 2007 and were up against AC Milan again, however this time the Italians came out on top.
2007 was also the year that Hicks and Gillet arrived. Money was found to bring in new players and the arrival of Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Javier Mascherano excited Liverpool fans. Benitez led Liverpool to the summit of the Premier League after thrashing Derby County 6-0 in September. European nights were not living up to expectations and a falling out between the manager and Owner became public, fans backed Benitez and he continued to ensure fans that his future remained at the club. The Reds ran Manchester United very close for the 2009 Premier League title and hopes were high that they would do one better in 2010.
The 2009/10 campaign did not start off well with early exits from both cup competitions and a miserable Champions League campaign, the team did reach the semi-final of the Europa League. Premier League results did not come either and the Reds finished 7th in the league. Although Rafa insisted that he did not want to leave the club, friction between him and the owners became too much and he left the club in June 2010.
During his six seasons at the club he made an impact with the fans and although they hoped for more silverware, Rafa still left with a Champions League and an FA Cup medal to show for. A week after leaving Liverpool he signed a deal with Inter Milan and although he won the Italian Super Cup and FIFA World club cup, poor league performances left them 13 points off of top spot, he was dismissed in December 2010. After nearly two years without managing a club, he became interim manager at Chelsea after Roberto Di Matteo left in 2012/13.
After also managing Napoli and Real Madrid he is now at Newcastle. He joined them in the middle of a relegation battle and although he couldn’t stop them from going down, he brought them straight back up the following season and is enjoying an impressive spell at the club.
Rafa is a favourite amongst Liverpool supporters and still refers to Liverpool as his second home. He will also be remembered for the contributions to the Hillsborough support group, the victims and members of their family.
Article By Lauren Black – @LaurenBlack9
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