On June 16th 2004, Liverpool finally got their man as the then Valencia manager Rafael Benitez signed on the dotted line and took charge of the reds.
His career at Valencia brought much success, as he managed to win La Liga twice as well as bringing the Uefa Cup back to the Mestalla in his three year career at the club. This created much hype around the Spaniard and he was welcomed on Merseyside with open arms.
The man from Madrid managed to live up to the expectation as he endured a successful six-year stint on Merseyside in which he managed to deliver a Champions League winners and runners up medal, an FA Cup winners medal and Liverpool’s highest league finish in many years, when finishing four points off winners Manchester United in second place.
He will be forever remembered for ‘that night’ in Istanbul when he brought home Liverpool’s fifth Champions League trophy in incredible fashion, clawing back a 3-0 deficit after half-time.
His transfer dealings as he racked up just under £229 million’s worth of spending, but when you look back over the years, he was possibly the shrewdest man to work in the transfer market. He managed to convince some of Europe’s top names to grace Anfield, the likes of Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano as he created one of the strongest Liverpool teams of the modern era. Of course he made some mistakes (pretty big ones..) such as signing Robbie Keane for £19m before not really giving him a chance and shipping him back out to Spurs within a year for a fraction of the price, as-well as bringing in ‘the new Thierry Henry’ Ryan Babel for £11.5m. But everyone makes mistakes, and Rafa’s were very few and far between.
His man management was brilliant and he brought an attacking style of play to Liverpool which excited the fans, and managed to adopt the football he played at Valencia into the Premier League, whilst still dominating in Europe thanks to the likes of Luis Garcia and Djibril Cisse.
He left with his head held high in 2010, and for many, the Benitez era was well and truly over. But little would they know, it would take to this season to really begin to shine, without many even realising.
Brendan Rodgers has gained many fans across the country for giving many members of his youth squad a chance in the first team, without people actually realising where he acquired the players from.
Raheem Sterling, Suso and Jonjo Shelvey have been three of the revelations of the season at Anfield after putting in a string of impressive performances pushing them into first-team regulars. All three of these were brought to the club by Benitez when he was still at the helm.
He signed Sterling in February 2010 from QPR, when he was only 15, for an initial fee of £600,000, which could rise to £5 million depending on how many appearances he makes for the first-team. This was risky business and many thought splashing out such big cash on a 15 year old was crazy, but now we are beginning to see just how good Rafa was at spotting talent.
This is seen in it’s strongest case by the signing and nurturing of Suso. ”Rafa phoned me and convinced me to leave Cadiz CF. When he left us and Hodgson came in, everything was totally the opposite,” Suso stated. He allowed him the chance to learn from older players in the reserves without rushing him into the first team, and wasting his talent. The 18 year-old has shone over the past couple of years in the reserves with many commenting on his magnificent technical ability and vision. We must all be thankful for Rodgers giving him a chance in the first team, but we must not forget just how important Benitez was in initially signing Suso and then keeping him at the club.
Shelvey is arguably the pick of the bunch as the ex-Charlton man has come into his own, and is now challenging the skipper for a place in attacking midfield. When Liverpool splashed the cash on Joe Allen and signed the Welshman for £15m, the majority felt it was the end for Shelvey at Liverpool, but he has performed with great credit when given the chance and showed his passion and desire to fight for a place at the club. Benitez spoke extremely highly of Jonjo when he paid the £1.7m for him back when he was 16.
“Players who could feel what Liverpool means. Shelvey is one of these and we have two or three names ready so we will try to do the best for the club.
“We have this long-term plan in place and we will try to follow the plan.”
These are only a few of the players that we can thank Rafa for that our now in the main squad. Pepe Reina was a £6m purchase from Villareal, which has turned out to be a steal, as he’s developed into one of the most consistent Goalkeepers in the world.
Martin Kelly has developed into a promising talent and looks set to be challenging for a place in the first-team when he returns from injury. Benitez gave Kelly his debut in 2008 and stated he thought Kelly could be in contention to be first-choice centre-back after the departure of Sami Hyypia. He has usually been deployed as a right-back due to his pace and ability with the ball, but could easily slot back in to a centre-back role if Brendan feels he’s suited.
But finally, one of the most important things Rafael Benitez ever did in his six-year stint at Liverpool occurred in the first month. When the man from Madrid arrived at the club Steven Gerrard’s future was in doubt, but the decision for the former Valencia manager to fly out to Portugal whilst Gerrard was competing in the Euro’s proved to be a shrewd one. He had a lengthy discussion with Gerrard about the direction the position the club was going in, and why he should stay at the club. This was a major factor in the skippers decision to stay, as he had previously stated he was ‘unhappy with the progress the club was making’, but a few words of wisdom from Benitez instilled the confidence in Gerrard the club was going in the right direction.
Without this, Gerrard could well be playing at Stamford Bridge alongside another Benitez master-stroke Fernando Torres. Instead he is still captaining his childhood club and gracing the Anfield turf every weekend, which in turn is still key in attracting big names to the club.
So when you are thanking Brendan for giving the opportunities to the youngsters, allow a small appreciation for a certain Mr Benitez for allowing the team to take the shape it does today. Benitez’ best work at Liverpool, may still yet to have occurred.