If This Is Goodbye, I Salute You Rafa Benitez

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If This Is Goodbye, I Salute You Rafa Benitez
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It appears that Rafa could be leaving us this summer after a woeful campaign for the Reds. I won’t argue or beg him to stay. His mind will be made up for other factors than the fans, and I can’t say I could blame him for that.

What I will say, though, is thanks.

Some people (usually fans of other teams I notice) believe that Rafa has done little in his time at Liverpool. No league title, only two trophies, and a poor showing in 2009-10.

But the reality is always far more open than that. I prefer to look at reality through clear lenses, not through the opaqueness of block black and white.

Rafa Benitez joined Liverpool when the club were a shadow of the team that won the famous treble of 2001. Gone were McAllister, Litmanen, Berger and Heskey, while Michael Owen jumped ship to Real Madrid at the earliest opportunity. The majority of Gerard Houllier’s signings had either flopped, gone backwards, been permanently injured or forced out of the door for fee losses, and Liverpool had barely qualified for the Champions League in 2004.

Down the road, Manchester United were as strong as ever, and had just spent £25.6 million on an 18-year-old boy wonder (the highest ever fee for an under-20-year old at the time) called Wayne Rooney, joining the likes of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Alan Smith. Arsenal were also strong, having won the league in 2004 with a side lauded for its attacking and passing prowess.

And then there was the power coming over the hill, in the form of the new rich men of football, Chelsea, managed by the Portuguese with the Champions League winner’s medal from the year before. In Jose Mourinho’s first summer in charge, which coincided with Rafa Benitez’s, he spent over £90 million on players, adding to the £100 million worth of staff brought in by his predecessor Claudio Ranieri, and adding to the likes of Lampard, Joe Cole, Terry and Makelele with the likes of Petr Cech, Drogba, Essien and Carvalho, to form the biggest, most powerful squad in the league, and the most expensive in English history.

In the same summer, Rafa’s total transfer budget was limited to just £18 million (£7m less than Rooney cost United). He chose to spend this as wisely as he could, on the problem areas in the team left over from the Houllier collapse. He did cheap deals to bring in the relative unknowns Xabi Alonso (£10m), Luis Garcia (£6m) and Josemi (£2m).

With a small squad and little money to enhance it, Liverpool’s league form was always likely to be stop-start in the 2004-05 season, and with the injury-laden squad left by Gerard Houllier that situation only got worse. When Liverpool played Fabio Capello’s Juventus in the quarter-final of the Champions League in 2005, they were forced to field a team including Anthony Le Tallec, Igor Biscan and Scott Carson against Nedved, Del Piero, Buffon and Ibrahimovic.

If Liverpool had achieved a Champions League spot in 2005 it would've been something to behold in light of their depleted squad and injury troubles, but that they won the Champions League, and after the final they played in too, was no small wonder.

Since that season, Rafa has been building hard. Despite the claims that he’s spent a lot of money, it’s clear to anyone with a calculator and half a brain that most of the money was raised by player sales ongoing. He sold Bellamy to fund Torres. He signed Voronin on a free transfer because he couldn’t afford anyone else, and then sold him for £2 million. He signed Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani last summer by spending a net of zero, funding the moves with only the money raised from player sales.

And that’s how it always worked with Benitez transfers really. Every one of his stopgap signings, even if they’d flopped badly, was sold on for more than he’d bought them for, with the only exceptions being Morientes, Pennant, Luis Garcia and Andrea Dossena. It’s a stunning fact, but easily discovered it you do some basic research.

And in that time he signed the goalkeeper now lauded as the best in the league in Pepe Reina for just £6 million, one of the best defenders in world football in Daniel Agger for just £5.8 million, made £20 million profit on the sale of Alonso, and even Torres at £20 million seems like a bargain, considering there’s offers coming in for him now for twice and three times that much.

He managed to secure top class players that Houllier wouldn’t have been able to even get near, like Torres and Mascherano, while he’s signed some of the most promising youth and academy players since the days of Roy Evans, such as Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, Dani Pacheco and Emiliano Insua, the latter two who’ve now broken in to the first team.

He’s had to fight against the rising tide of the rich clubs that have constantly moved the goal posts. Whenever he’s bought a £15 million + player, Spurs and United have bought two, and City and Chelsea have bought three. Whenever he’s bought one top youngster, Arsenal have bought a more expensive one closer to the first team.

And yet, despite all that, he managed to get to within inches of a title success in 2009.

This campaign has been very disappointing of course, and there can be few excuses. However, with their star striker injured for most of the season (would United be challenging for the title if free-scoring Rooney had been out all year?), and the rest of the team woefully under performing, I’d also say that it’s grossly unfair to throw the blame at one man.

If he leaves I’ll be sorry, because it’ll mean a new period of rebuilding at Liverpool and the same budget constraints that Rafa had to contend with, and I can’t imagine anyone else being as capable of wheeling and dealing and selling for profit as Rafa was. The likes of Torres, Mascherano, Benayoun, Agger and Aquilani could want to follow him abroad, and they’d need replacing by a new manager just through the doors.

But if he stays, then Liverpool might just have a chance of winning the title next year. If you laugh, just remember that the team is largely unchanged from 2009 when they did almost win the league, and the likes of Aquilani, Maxi Rodriguez and Glen Johnson will be fully integrated and ready for action. Torres could’ve put his injury troubles behind him and Rafa will have already signed cover in the form of Milan Jovanovic and more.

The youngsters Dani Pacheco, Jay Spearing, Damien Plessis, Martin Kelly, Dani Ayala and David Ngog will be ever closer to the start of their peaks. The much-maligned Lucas Leiva is starting to look like a Liverpool player as he grows stronger, and Yossi Benayoun seems to be just getting better and better. The club will have new owners, a fresh outlook and renewed optimism.

But all of that depends on just one thing: Rafa Benitez. If he goes, it won’t be the end of the world, but it’ll sure be a step backwards.

And I’ll miss him. I’ll miss the way he stood up to the press, the owners, wayward players and to his rival managers. I’ll miss the way he brought the best out of many untried men and youngsters and turned them in to regular internationals and players envied by Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City and Chelsea.

But above all I’ll miss the fact that it was him, more than anyone else in our recent history, that gave Liverpool their place back among the feared elite of Europe, and made not winning the league or finishing outside the Champions League places a disaster, instead of the regular occurrence it’d been under Evans and Houllier.

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