Liverpool v Chelsea: Rafael Benitez's games of political football still divide opinion

Chelsea manager faces warm Anfield return but one that comes with reservations

Liverpool is still his place of sanctuary – even now, three years after he told me that it was time to cut the cord, or risk being the perennial “former Liverpool manager”.

When he confided that fear, Rafael Benitez's head was gazing out beatifically from a mighty advertising hoarding, not far from the Mersey, promoting An Evening with Rafa at the local Empire Theatre. He'd long since been deposed as manager.

Merseyside can get under your skin that way, which is why Benitez – who goes "home" with the Chelsea team which has never been his on Sunday – has been found in many of the old, familiar places these past five months, on his half dozen returns to the place where his wife Montse and the girls, Claudia and Agata, remain settled.

A busy coffee house, tightly packed with tables and diners behind Liverpool's business district, is one of the haunts. Some managers would want more space but Benitez likes it this way, amid the clatter. Another is the Radisson, down towards the river, where they know his table and he is among friends. It's approaching a decade since Benitez discovered these people, as manager of the Valencia team who arrived at Anfield for a friendly in August 2003. The Spaniards won 2-0 but the Kop honoured the visitors with a generous ovation. "These supporters are different, aren't they?" Benitez told friends that night.

Little did he know, back then, that he would one day know all about the provenance of Beatles lyrics, Margaret Thatcher's economic effects on Merseyside and the Blitz which claimed the lives of 4,000 residents. But the more assiduous Benitez watcher might have predicted, even in 2003, that his career in this inestimably political city would become… well, political.

At the time of that pre-season friendly, Benitez was involved in an increasingly bitter confrontation with Jesus Garcia Pitarch, Valencia's director of football. "Previously if I made a pit stop you'd change a wheel for me," he told Pitarch in one of their heated exchanges. "Now I don't even get near the pit stop because you won't let me drive in." This kind of conflict has accompanied an innately political man through football and there are a significant number on Merseyside who do not care for him because of it.

How anyone could fail to be drawn into the toxic civil strife into which Tom Hicks and George Gillett plunged Liverpool, almost rendering them insolvent in the process, is anyone's guess. Yet Benitez said what he had to say and is remembered for it. That is why we need to deconstruct the notion of Liverpool adoration and Chelsea loathing in the Anfield stands tomorrow, as if the two had taken up the wrong ends of the ground.

Liverpool fans will also argue the merits of his transfer spending long into the night. For every Fernando Torres there is a Robbie Keane; for every Xabi Alonso an Alberto Aquilani. And, of course, there was the pursuit of Gareth Barry in preference to Alonso. Benitez will tell you that there was logic: Alonso had seemed to be fading and a quota of English players was required. But the supporters who admire Alonso's contemporary powers now struggle to see it that way.

Viewed through the prism of a 2012-13 season which has seemed interminable at times, the Benitez days at Anfield certainly look halcyon now. Just compare Liverpool's meek capitulation at Old Trafford in January and the afternoon Benitez's players bestrode that place, Torres destroying Nemanja Vidic in a 4-1 win in March 2009. It tells us that many didn't really know what they'd got, in this manager, until he was gone.

Some of the players might agree with that sentiment, in their hearts. Jamie Carragher may not now be the greatest advocate of Benitez's powers but he said in his biography that no one improved him more as a defender. The Spaniard only attracts extreme emotions. It will be a complicated homecoming.

Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicReview: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
News
peopleJustin Bieber accuses papparrazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech
News
people
Voices
voices
Sport
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
News
i100
News
Ukrainian Leonid Stadnik, 37, 2.59 meter (8,5 feet) tall, the world's tallest living man, waves as he poses for the media by the Chevrolet Tacuma car presented to him by President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev on March 24, 2008.
newsPeasant farmer towered at almost 8'5'' - but shunned the limelight
News
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in ‘The Front Page’, using an old tech typewriter
media
Life and Style
Could a robot sheepdog find itself working at Skipton Auction Mart?
techModel would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian
film
Sport
Angel Di Maria poses with Louis van Gaal after signing for Manchester United
sportWinger arrives from Real Madrid and could make debut on Saturday
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Hooked on classical: cellist Rachael Lander began drinking to combat panic attacks
musicThe cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow...
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis