Liverpool: Should Rafael Benitez Ever Return to Anfield?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2013

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 29:  Liverpool Manager Rafael Benitez issues instructions during the UEFA Europa League Semi-Final Second Leg match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid at Anfield on April 29, 2010 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez may not be the most popular manager Stamford Bridge has ever had, but in terms of trophies on his career he is surely up there with the most successful of them.

One of his crowning moments came while he was boss of Liverpool, between 2004 and 2010, and in recent comments he was reported as suggesting that his time at Anfield could come again in the future.

Sky Sports report that Benitez claimed he was "confident" that he would one day return to manage Liverpool in a second spell:

My idea is to keep coaching a competitive team. Why not in England? We have to wait and see. I will return to Liverpool one day almost certainly, I just don't know when, my daughters and wife are still living there.

Whether Rafa was actually referring to Liverpool the club or Liverpool the city in this instance is debatable, but the media have naturally taken it as a sign that he expects to sit in the Anfield dugout once more at some point.

But would it be a good idea, for the manager or for the club?

From the point of view of Liverpool FC, it's quite simple—the ideal scenario is that the opportunity for Rafa to return does not present itself, as this will mean that current boss, Brendan Rodgers, is an ongoing success in turning Liverpool from a top-eight team back into a top-four one and beyond.

Champions League, trophies, continued growth and progress; those are the things that Rodgers is charged with bringing back to Anfield and next season, 2013-14, will require clear signals that all four are en route, if not definitively arriving.

Should that not be the case—in one, or two years, or more—then is a former manager worth looking at again?

Recent occurrences would suggest not.

It's easy to simply point to the relatively unsuccessful second spell of Kenny Dalglish, but there are other considerations, too.

From winning the FA Cup with the Reds in 2006, Rafa has gone on to manage Inter Milan and now Chelsea, with two trophies arriving at Inter (Supercoppa Italiana and Club World Cup) and the possibility of the FA Cup once more, now at Chelsea, but both of those jobs were effectively short-term ones.

In Italy he lasted just six-and-a-half months before being forced to give way, and at Chelsea his "interim" title alone ensured that the appointment would not be seen as a temporary one. In neither of these jobs has he been allowed to choose transfer targets exclusively, rebuild a side or roll out plans for the future.

They have both very much been a case of "here are the players, get on with it." In fact, it is arguable that only at Liverpool did he construct a team, with his La Liga titles at Valencia in 2002 and 2004 coming off the back of two Champions League finals appearances in 2000 and 2001. Of course the team changed partially during that period, but it was certainly already a very good side before he arrived.

What Liverpool are doing now is constructing a squad and a club ethos, very much in the mould of Brendan Rodgers.

He and Benitez do not share exact footballing outlooks, and replacing one with the other—or bringing Benitez in further down the line—would require yet another restructuring of the playing staff.

There are further questions to be asked: Can Benitez work in line with a board which requires mostly young, promising players to be signed?

Think back to his first spell at the club; the likes of Albert Riera, Yossi Benayoun, Luis Garcia, Fernando Morientes—they were all already past the "potential" stage of their careers when arriving at Liverpool. It is quite possible that not all of them would be accepted as adequate targets these days.

Is the ambition and the ability there to select, attract and develop younger players sufficiently well to challenge for major honours?

Tactically, there is little to question with Benitez. Meticulous planning, repetition of key facets of any game and an unsurpassed level of detail from fitness to positioning to that most fabled—if not always accurate—of Benitez traits, rotation, all fell under his guidance, and all were done with a single aim in mind—to win the next match.

He did that pretty well for three years or so, no denying it.

But maybe, for his own sake, he would be better off in another job away from such intense speculation, comparison and media glare.

At Inter, he was replacing Jose Mourinho, the treble-winner. Now, at Chelsea, he is vilified by a section of supporters and asked questions of his future every week. Surely, as a professional and as a top-class boss, he needs to get himself a job where he can develop a side in his own way and show his quality.

After that, perhaps there will more options open to him. More acceptance from external sources.

Right now, though, and arguably for the short-to-mid-term future, there should be no comeback for Benitez at Liverpool.

It is not for lack of respect for his abilities, nor for ignoring the fact that he has been the most successful manager—in terms of major honours won—since the pre-Premier League days but simply because he has been there, done that, so to speak. New challenges, for club and manager, await to be tackled. But there is no compelling reason right now to make them one and the same.

The admiration from supporters, a majority anyway, lingers and so it should. But that does not translate into him being the popular choice, the necessary choice or the right choice.

Benitez is likely the manager that Liverpool would not have as their first choice, now and in the future—but nor would he ever be turned away if he eventually did make a remarkable return.


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