By Matthew Volpi
25th May 2005. 8.30PM.
I sat on the sofa in my living room, dejected, in tears. Liverpool were 3-0 down to AC Milan in the Champions League Final. My dad sat across from me, also visibly upset. There were no words spoken. The scoreline said all that either of us needed to know. I was in the infancy of my Liverpool fandom, yet the weight of the disappointment was heavy on me as I stared at the floor, shocked TV pundits discussing how Liverpool were picked apart by a quality Milan unit. Saying that Liverpool would be praying for the 90th minute to come, that there was no way back. I had to agree.
By 10.15 I was in dreamland.
Nobody will ever forget that night. Not just Liverpool fans, but anyone with even a passing interest in football will know of the incredible fight back by Rafa Benitez’s side. Ask any Liverpool fan what their favourite game has been over the years, and the majority will give you a one word answer. A word that stirs something within every LFC supporter: Istanbul.
That was the start of Rafa Benitez’s love affair with the Liverpool fans. With that night, he wrote himself into the book detailing our most inspirational, successful managers. Before that there was the unforgettable night where Luis Garcia ended Chelsea’s European hopes with a, shall we say, controversial, goal. In the previous round the same player rocked Anfield with a sensational volley against giants Juventus. And the spine-tingling comeback against Olympiakos preceded all of that.
In Istanbul, we won it five times. But that was the first of many unforgettable European nights under Rafa. Barcelona. Real Madrid. Inter Milan. Chelsea. They all came up against Benitez’s side as favourites, but left disappointed as the mighty reds found something to lift them enough to come away victorious.
After 2005, Rafa had a lot to live up too. He didn’t rest on his laurels. Players left. Better players replaced them. By 2008 Liverpool had a team to be afraid of. One of the best midfield combinations ever seen in Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, and of course, Steven Gerrard. The deadly Fernando Torres arrived in 2007. Under the guidance of Rafa he notched 72 goals in just 116 games.
Rafa Benitez completely understood, and still understands what it means to be Liverpool manager. Having had the pleasure of listening to him speak about the club in October 2011 on The Anfield Wrap podcast, it is clear that he has genuine love for the club that, while it may not be to the level of Kenny Dalglish, is larger than you could possibly expect from any “Outsider”. His memory of the team is equally impressive. He can remember specific results, formations and line-ups that he liked to use.
In the 2008/09 season, Rafa and Liverpool launched their most convincing title challenge since the desperately painful last day loss in 1990/91. Coming just 4 points behind United, the reds were an incredible team. Rafa’s enviable tactical knowledge, his fantastic decision making, and the style of play he incorporated in the reds made them a formidable force. He had his critics though, he always has. “He’s too negative!” 77 goals, the highest in the league in 2008/09 belied that comment. “He rotates too much!” was also a popular one. Now it is uncommon to see a manager in the premier league name the same team two games in a row. Rafa knew what he was doing. That’s what made him so great.
He knew exactly how he wanted his Liverpool to play. He knew exactly what he wanted from each player and they were well aware of what he expected from them week after week. He stuck to his beliefs, to his system, to the style of play he loved, and did not truly doubt himself for a second. When asked what he looked for in a player, he replied “Character.” Possibly the thing that has been missed most since his reign is the spirit and mental toughness he demanded from his players.
Sadly, 2008/09 was to be Benitez’s penultimate year in charge of LFC. After one bad season, in no small part the fault of Hicks and Gillett, the most clueless, intrusive and selfish of people, and managing director Christian Purslow. Rafa was kicked out of the club. It was said that he was not the man to bring Liverpool a title. Then we got Roy Hodgson.
How wrong the club were to sack a man that created history in such a short time at Liverpool. A man who had the guts to stand up to the tyrant owners, and in return for representing the club and its fans in an exemplary manner, was shown the door. The man that brought us that week in 2009 when Madrid and United were comprehensively beaten. To this day I cannot remember a greater performance by a Liverpool team than that Champions league night at Anfield, where Real Madrid could not get a sniff against our rampant forces.
Benitez’s CV ranks among the best for Liverpool managers of recent times. Our first European cup since 1984 was followed up by another visit to the final, where Liverpool were unfortunate to lose to Milan. Between that an FA cup win. Several jaunts through Europe followed that, where the aforementioned teams were beaten on classic Anfield European nights. There were also countless wins against Chelsea and Man united in the league. As well as the first win over United in the FA cup for 85 years in 2006.
Rafael Benitez currently resides in Liverpool. He has no current managerial job, but rather spends his time avidly following Liverpool’s progress, analysing each game in his trademark meticulous fashion, always up to date, and always knowing what he would have done. In a recent poll, the man himself topped the list of managerial candidates the fans of LFC would like to see in the driver’s seat for next season.
Any manager that wins a European cup with Djimi Traore in the team can’t be that bad.