Rafael Benitez and Arsène Wenger will be fighting for crucial Champions League points tonight, but the Napoli manager last night made clear his deep respect for his adversary, describing him as “the best coach in the Premier League” and hoping that one day he will be successful in his quest to win the European Cup.
The two managers were close during Benitez’s two spells in the Premier League – first with Liverpool, then with Chelsea – and the Spaniard praised Wenger on Monday, saying: “I think he’s a great manager, and a great person, someone that knows the league here in England, and has experience in Europe, and is always in the top four. He is doing a great job.”
While Benitez lifted the Champions League in 2005 with Liverpool, Wenger has yet to win it, losing in the final to Barcelona in 2006. Although Napoli and Arsenal are in a desperately difficult group now – along with Borussia Dortmund and Marseilles – Benitez said he would be pleased, in the future, if Wenger did finally get his hands on the European Cup. “Hopefully, he can win the Champions League, but in another year, not this one, just in case,” the Spaniard said.
Since their 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day, Arsenal have been in remarkably good form, rising to the top of the Premier League, winning in Marseilles and advancing to the last 16 of the League Cup. They have won eight of their last nine games, and took the other one in a penalty shoot-out. Benitez, though, said he was not surprised.
“I was expecting a strong team,” he said. “Wenger is the best coach in the Premier League, then they signed good players and at this point everything is going well for them.”
Tuesday night’s game will be a different challenge from Napoli’s first, when they beat Borussia Dortmund, last season’s Champions League runners-up, 2-1 at home. “Of course there is a difference,” Benitez said. “We played the first game at home against finalists, a very, very tough game. But it’s a different game now, away, we play against a team that have ball possession as a strength. Against Dortmund we had to work and be careful of counter-attacking, now we need to change approach, as Arsenal will use ball possession.”
This will be Benitez’s first competitive game in England since he left Chelsea at the end of last season after a successful spell as interim manager, and he said on Monday night he was proud of his work at Stamford Bridge, despite his unpopularity with some supporters. “I was really pleased because we won,” he said. “We finished in the top three – that was the target – and we won the Europa League. Really pleased, and the majority of the professionals and people who follow the team every day could see we were trying to do our best and we did a good job at the end.”
While Benitez said he was very happy in Naples, he was open to the possibility of one day returning for a third spell in England. “My future is to do well with Napoli and try to win things. You never know. I am still a young manager – hopefully, I’ll be there a long time then I can manage in different countries in the future,” he said.
Benitez is certainly enjoying life in Naples for now, though, with his team just two points off the lead in Serie A. “It is a nice place, with nice fans with a lot of passion and commitment. It is very similar to Liverpool in terms of passion for the team, for football. They enjoy football and you can see that everywhere.