Four years ago we enjoyed one of the most important title races in years. United and Liverpool were going head to head, with United looking to equal Liverpool’s record of 18 titles, whilst Liverpool were trying to put themselves two clear of United.
Ahead of their game against Stoke City, Rafael Benitez famously brought a sheet of ‘facts’ about manager Sir Alex Ferguson. You can only imagine how pleased this will have made our manager at the time. Benitez had an important game to prepare for and instead he was obsessing over our manager. Benitez was rattling off dates, decisions made by referees, comments made by Ferguson, complaints about United’s ‘easier’ fixtures, and used the word “fact” repeatedly.
I’ve often wondered since what must have been going through Benitez’s head when he decided to dedicate his pre-match press conference to Ferguson and United. He must have honestly thought that showing up with his sheet of ‘facts’ was a good idea, and that it wouldn’t make him look like a raving lunatic.
“Maybe they are nervous because we are at the top of the table,” he said. Over the next two months, Liverpool picked up just 10 points from a possible 21 and United were away. Rafa took his eye off the ball and United went on to equal Liverpool’s record of 18 titles. “18 times and that’s a fact,” Old Trafford sung, before winning our 19th title two years later.
Benitez was sacked a year later when they finished 7th in the league, 33 points off top spot, and was paid off with £6m. He then went to Inter Milan and was sacked a few months in to the job after turning the team that had just won the Treble a few months earlier in to the 6th best side in Italy.
Whilst Liverpool fans have repeatedly called for him to return, much to our disappointment, he stayed away from the Premier League, and from work all together in fact. Two years after being sacked by Inter, Benitez got a phone call from Roman Abramovich, asking him to replace Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea.
Abramovich played perfectly in to United’s hands with the baffling decision of appointing Benitez. Firstly, what did Abramovich hope to get out of the players when knowing that their latest manager, one of a very long line they’ve played under in the past 10 years, was only there until the end of the season? We already know that several Chelsea players have an issue with authority, so did Abramovich seriously expect those players to slog their guts out for another manager they that knew would be disappearing in a few months?
Secondly, the fans despise him, and rightly so. The rivalry was fierce between Chelsea and Liverpool in the 2000s, with them regularly being drawn against each other in the Champions League. Liverpool fans sang about their history whilst Chelsea fans sang of their recent success.
“We don’t need to give away stupid plastic flags to our fans to wave,” Benitez said ahead of one of their Champions League games in 2007. “Our supporters are always there with their hearts and that is all we need. Its the passion of the fans that helps us to win matches, not flags. Chelsea fans lack passion.”
Some sections of the press have defended Benitez for these comments, claiming that managers have to fight for their current team, and that Chelsea fans should understand that. I can’t agree though. If managers taking swipes at opposition fans was a regular occurrence, then maybe Benitez’s comments could be explained, but when does that ever happen? There have been plenty of mind games and arguments between managers in the past, but Mourinho and Wenger never singled out our fans (even with our fans spending years chanting about Wenger being a paedophile). Ferguson hates Liverpool with a passion but has never criticised their support (despite all the shit throwing, ambulance ambushing, Munich mocking and the like). When Abramovich appointed a manager who the fans hate, did he seriously think they would allow it to be water under the bridge and support him regardless?
Thirdly, Benitez just isn’t that good. With the likes of Mata, Oscar, Hazard and now Ba, Chelsea could be a real threat. But Benitez loves a bit of rotation and will drop his best players even when there’s not another league game for ten days or more. That’s just what he does. Benitez last (and only) real success was with Valencia and that was almost 10 years ago. He won the Champions League in 2005 but it wasn’t with a team he created, and Liverpool had to totally sacrifice competing in the league to achieve it, finishing 5th that season. Football management seems to be one of the few careers where failing sees you rewarded with a new job, and thankfully, one of our supposed title rivals decided to give one to him
Whilst it was clear Di Matteo still had some learning to do, you have got to applaud a manager who takes charge of a team in decline with just a few months of the season remaining and manages to win the European Cup and FA Cup. Whilst he was going through a rocky patch this season, Chelsea were still only four points behind United and serious title challengers. After two months of Benitez, that gap has grown to eleven points.
You would think then, after going from embarrassment to embarrassment, Benitez might want to keep a low profile and stay under Ferguson’s radar. Apparently not. Benitez was asked about Ferguson’s recent criticism of the linesman who didn’t flag for a blatant penalty for Rooney at the weekend and happily gave his thoughts.
“Maybe now a lot of people are seeing the same things,” Benitez said yesterday. “I will not talk too much about that because it’s obvious. It’s a question for the FA what they do about it. What I said at that time was what I thought and what I’m seeing now is similar. It depends on the FA. I don’t know what they will do.”
Anyone sensible, with at least half a brain, would have been able to work out that this journo was looking to stir. A wry smile followed by “What Ferguson does is none of my business” would have done the trick. Instead, Benitez chooses to refer back to his mental breakdown in 2009 as if there was any validity to what he said and as if it didn’t make him a laughing stock.
Ferguson wasn’t the only person Benitez took a swipe at, with him losing the plot when confronted with what his former player, Marco Materazzi, had to say about him.
“He is not my ideal coach,” he said. “If I was a club president, I’d never employ him. A great boss like Marcello Lippi or Mourinho knows how to get their demands across to a dressing room. Whereas Benítez, well he wanted to put them all in writing, 10 or 12 rules, like the Highway Code or being at school. At Inter’s training centre there were photos on the wall of all the most successful past coaches, from Helenio Herrera to Roberto Mancini and Mourinho. Benítez had the ones of José taken down. With that gesture, he showed his character: that of a weak person.”
Benitez was furious about this and instead of banging on about ‘facts’, he decided to repeatedly call Materazzi a liar.
“He’s lying,” he said. “He’s lying. He’s lying, just lying. Everything he has said is a lie. Simple. It’s all a lie. Nobody knew Mourinho was leaving after the European Cup final in 2010 and no one knew the Inter position would be available. Nobody knew I was going to Inter, even me. So it’s a lie. I went there and wanted to be professional and to respect people.”
The only sad thing about this is that Benitez will probably be gone at the end of the season, meaning the remaining few months are unlikely to produce a full scale melt down. However, if Ferguson gets to work stirring the pot and Chelsea can’t find anyone daft enough to take the job off him, we might get to enjoy plenty more rants like these.
Viva la Rafalution!