It is not very often that Florentino Perez goes back to get a manager who has already turned him down but he was prepared to make an exception in the case of Rafael Benitez. Perez, the Real Madrid president, moved heaven and earth to make the Bernabeu Stadium irresistibly appealing to him in 2009, paying particular attention to creating a package which might also entice Mrs Montse Benitez back to the Spanish capital.
Benitez’s Liverpool had just beaten Real 4-0 at the time. The emotional pull of his spiritual English home proved too much though and he signed up for more of the madhouse that Anfield degenerated into under the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
Real’s steadfast interest in Benitez, which Perez’s director general Jose Angel Sanchez has been instrumental in maintaining, should have made the homecoming one to bask in. Yet it was an uncharacteristically emotional Benitez who walked back into the club he left 20 years ago to accept the coach’s job. He was lost for words and tears were in his eyes at the end of the short response he gave to Perez’s formal welcome. “It’s emotional to come home,” he admitted. “This is always the hardest part when you don’t know what to say...”
There must have been many times since he left Liverpool in 2010 – including the two years out of work – when he doubted such a moment would arrive. Though Benitez would never put it in such a way, the last few years at Napoli have looked from afar like rehabilitation through exile.
Privately, he wonders what upsets lie ahead next in a management career which have brought very many. He came to know this club like the back of his hand in the 1970s and early 1990s – as an established member of the B team and then as a coach for two years – and learned how political it can be at the Bernabeu. There were immediate diplomatic incidents to skirt, with Benitez steadfastly not answering English press conference questions in English, knowing that would upset the home contingent.
So it was in Spanish that he said he considers this job incalculably tougher than the one he took on at Liverpool in 2004. “At Liverpool I had three years to get the team competing and we won the Champions League in the first year,” he said. “But here we have to be at a very high level right from the start and try to be always at the top. From the first moment you have to compete. The expectations are different from when we were at Liverpool.”
It certainly feels like he has something even bigger to prove than he did when arriving on Merseyside from Valencia. His accomplishments at Anfield have looked increasingly impressive as barren years have rolled by for Liverpool. Yet that faintly anti-intellectual, mildly xenophobic discussion of him persists in England. That famously futile attempt to destroy Sir Alex Ferguson’s gamesmanship with the facts sheet he pulled out of a jacket pocket in 2009 is somehow still considered more relevant to the assessment of him than his record in European competition: seven European semi-finals in 12 years with four clubs. And he did not have a club for two of those years.
It does not help that his predecessor at the Bernabeu, Carlo Ancelotti, who delivered the famous decima European Cup and four trophies in a single year, is by some measure the most successful coach in the club’s history. There have also been a few suggestions that Benitez is a more defensive manager than him – a supposition flatly dismissed a few weeks ago by his former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher, who is not generally inclined to confect any football talk.
Amid the uncertainties in some quarters, Real have been dressing up the Benitez appointment as a homecoming of the hombre de la casa – “the man of the house” – for days. The spontaneity of his emotion was no bad thing.
The choreography is nothing compared with the management task he faces. Benitez, who has fought tooth and nail to better so many of his squads over the years, now has more playing riches than he could possibly ask for. But since so many of them pick themselves – Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos – the task looks like a collection of man-management challenges as much as the game-management tests which he has always so excels at.
There are some suggestions that Ronaldo does not want to play centre-forward, yet the balance of the squad – lacking in that position – might well require that he does so. There is the problem of Bale and how the new coach will, as he has been asked, get more out of him. A role behind the centre-forward may be a consideration.
Benitez is familiar with the Welshman, who Liverpool scouted when he was at Southampton but could not persuade the South coast club to part with in the early days (a cash and exchange deal involving the midfielder Darren Potter, now at Milton Keynes Dons, was actually one of the early offers before in 2007 Tottenham moved in). Benitez feels he can help Bale improve. An emphasis on strengthening work is always a part of what he brings.
The headline stories are actually less complicated. The feeling is that goalkeeper David De Gea can be enticed from Manchester United whenever Real chose to step up their efforts, though the reluctance of Iker Casillas to leave and make way is shaping up to be a problem. Real want him out of the picture before turning to De Gea.
Benitez admires Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling and, as he said here, knows the player “very well” having brought him to Liverpool. Some private ruminations about whether it is too early for a 20-year-old to step into a cauldron such as the Bernabeu would be unlikely to deter Benitez. It has been put to him that the re-sale value of Sterling in England would remain very high, should a move to Spain not work, so a bid to buy him would not represent a major risk. Perez calls shots like that.
The size of the task Benitez faces in keeping his new job for the length of his three-year contract were laid bare in the AS newspaper, whose cover story depicted him as El Decimo de Florentino – Perez’s 10th manager. He made a joke of this and reflected on it being the way of “modern football.” But what seemed to be behind the smile was a resolve to demonstrate that he is a manager in the elite class who, with the greatest respect, is operating in a different realm to West Ham, who recently tried to hire him, and Napoli.
When Argentina trained at Manchester City’s Etihad Campus ahead of their friendly game against Portugal last autumn, Benitez – back home on Merseyside – was invited over by Javier Mascherano, his former Liverpool midfielder, who told his compatriots Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta in no uncertain terms: “You need this man as your manager. He’ll make you win things.”
Benitez knows City’s kingmaker Txiki Begiristain but the club decided their future lay elsewhere. The challenge ahead is monumental for Benitez but here comes his chance to demonstrate that he belongs among football’s very best.