There was something strangely symmetrical about the manner in which the Spanish league was won this season. It was fitting that the title was decided in both Barcelona and Madrid, though not in the stadiums you might expect.
Real Madrid scored 4 at Espanyol’s Estadi Cornellà-El Prat, Ronaldo scored his seventh hat trick of the season and as Carlo Ancelotti watched on in the late night Catalan heat, no smile dared spread across his face. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s victory at the Vicente Calderón against Atletico Madrid ensured the title would return with them.
Eight days later the Italian had been sacked, less than a year after winning La Décima, Real Madrid’s long awaited 10th Champions League title.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s popular WWII novel Slaughterhouse Five , every death is followed by the phrase “so it goes”, in order to show how each death is equal, inevitable, no matter how it occurs. When Florentino Perez announced the departure of Ancelotti it would have been equally apt if the announcement ended with Vonnegut’s proclamation.
This is life at Madrid, each manager’s tenure acting simply as respite between speculation of who will be appointed his successor, and as the rumour mill began it’s (milling?) there was some surprise that the name it spat out was that of Rafa Benitez.
When the rumour about Benitez first began, Real Madrid’s official mouthpiece, Marca, ran the headline, “Only if there is nobody better”, and indeed many bemused spectators have come to the conclusion that Benitez’s imminent appointment highlights the fact that there is indeed nobody better.
For many potential candidates, taking over the Bernabeu hot-seat must seem to have as high a life expectancy as a starring role on Game of Thrones, but there are a few factors to consider before Benitez is doomed a failure prior to even signing his contract.
First of all, Rafa Benitez is really rather good in La Liga. Perhaps unfairly labeled a cup manager, let us not forget that before Simeone’s Atletico team of 2013/14, Benitez’s Valencia side were the last to break up the Madrid-Barca dominance of La Liga, winning two titles in three years between 2001-2004.
It has now been three years since Madrid last won the league title under Jose Mourinho, an eternity to fans as demanding as the Madridistas. If Benitez can recapture this previous league form with a much better squad than he had at the Mestalla then it surely won’t be too long before the league trophy returns to the white half of Madrid.
However let’s not forget that his cup record isn’t half bad. Along with his league exploits, Benitez added the UEFA Cup to Valencia’s trophy room in 2004. His next European trophy was even more impressive, taking a less than stellar Liverpool side to their 5th Champions League trophy in his first season in England, masterminding one of the most extraordinary comebacks in history against AC Milan. This was followed with domestic success in the FA Cup in 2006.
In his brief stint at Chelsea, Benitez won another European trophy in the form of the Europa League, and in his first season at Napoli managed to win the Copa Italia. Make no mistake, cup pedigree is useful, if not vital at a club like Real Madrid. Not only do they expect European honours every season, but this is a club for which every game is like a knockout game, entire seasons and the stability of a manager’s employment can oscillate wildly from game to game.
That Benitez is a manager comfortable with pressure is obvious with his record in knockout tournaments, and it is exactly those kinds of experiences the Spaniard will have call upon if he hopes to be a success at Madrid.
It also must be noted that the pressure and the lifestyle associated with Madrid is nothing new for Benitez. In his short injury plagued days as a youth footballer, it was through Real Madrid’s youth ranks that he rose. When injuries forced him to prematurely retire, he took over Madrid’s Castilla side, winning an u-19 league and two u-19 Spanish cups.
Crucially his formative years as a coach came in Madrid, the ambitions, philosophy and ethos of the club from Spain’s capital are fully understood by Benitez. Many managers enter through the Bernabeu’s revolving doors, but not many know exactly what to expect when they arrive, and while it may be difficult to second guess any decision made by the volatile board, few managers would be as prepared as Benitez himself.
When Benitez has been criticised it has usually been for his poor league performances. One can point out his poor final season at Liverpool and his disaster in his only stint at Inter. However you must temper both these failures with the financial situation at both clubs at the time.
At Liverpool, Hicks and Gillett’s period of ownership was categorised by a noticeable dearth in funds made available for transfers, even after Liverpool finished runner up to Manchester United in the Premier League title race. At Inter, owner Massimo Morrati rejected Benitez’s claim that key additions were needed to improve an ageing squad, despite the treble success a year earlier.
That Liverpool did not win the league under Benitez is unfortunate, but it is not unique. 25 years and 8 managers have passed since that was last achieved. As for Inter, one only has to look at their struggles in the five years that have passed since Mourinho won the treble to see the size of the task Benitez faced.
Both these situations show a lack of understanding from owners that any period of success can easily lapse into stagnation, without an influx and an exodus of players year on year, players get too comfortable, lack hunger. Manchester City this year serve as an example of the danger of a lack of quality imports following a year of success.
This is unlikely to be a problem at Real Madrid where players are kept on their toes as much as the staff, there has been much speculation over the fate of Gareth Bale and the possible incoming of David De Gea among others, one thing is certain, this is a club that never stands still.
Rafa Benitez and Real Madrid could be just the right match at just the right time. Real Madrid will be determined to reaffirm their place as Spain’s premier club ,while Benitez, plagued by a less than complimentary service related nickname, will be determined to prove that he deserves a seat at Europe’s top table.