Beyond Benítez: Rafa's Reign as Reds Manager Leaves a Tough Act To Follow
Now that Rafael Benítez's time as Liverpool manager has come to an end, we can now examine the Spaniard's span as Anfield boss.
Overall, a vast majority of Liverpool supporters will probably look back at Rafa's reign fondly as opposed to those who will point out his mistakes, failures and shortcomings. Benítez should be considered amongst the pantheon of the club's managerial greats that includes Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, and Kenny Dalglish.
As Rafa Benítez walked through the Shankly Gates for the first time in the summer of 2004, he inherited a squad that needed a considerable face-lift. His predecessor, Gérard Houllier, similarly started his Anfield era by making sensational signings such as Sami Hyypiä, Dietmar Hamann, Stephane Henchoz, Markus Babbel, Emile Heskey, and Gary McAllister.
In his later years, Houllier's acquisitions of El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao, and Bruno Cheyrou ultimately led to his dismissal. His final signing, Djibril Cissé, moved to Liverpool for £14m as Benítez arrived. Initial transfer funds were not sizable for Rafa as the deal largely cut into his transfer budget.
On the eve of the 2004-05 campaign well-renowned marksman Michael Owen completed his move to Real Madrid for a measly £8m with Antonio Núñez used in part-exchange. Emile Heskey had already completed his transfer to Birmingham City as Liverpool's attack lacked continuity outside of the un-prolific Milan Baroš. Rafa was forced to sell the popular Danny Murphy to Charlton for a cut-rate £2.5m in an attempt to raise much needed transfer funds.
Benítez was able to scrape together enough cash to complete the signings of Spanish pair Xabi Alonso and Luis García for £16.7m. The two quickly became "Kop icons" and were instrumental in the Reds reaching the Champions League final.
Rafa was able to mastermind the unprecedented comeback from 3-0 down in the Istanbul final defeating an AC Milan team made up of top internationals. After the ecstasy of delivering Liverpool 's fifth European Cup, Rafa went to work to further improve his squad for the 2005-06 season.
Spanish keeper Pepe Reina was brought in as a steal for £6m and quickly assumed Istanbul hero Jerzy Dudek's starting place. Towering striker Peter Crouch joined for £7m and solid defensive midfielder Mohamed Sissoko was also recruited for £5.3m.
Benítez desperately hurried to sell misfiring forwards Baroš and Cissé in time to make an 11th-hour bid for Michael Owen but was unable to raise enough funds as the ex-Red moved to Newcastle. Without a top goal-getter Liverpool failed again to mount a serious Premier League title challenge. Crouch had become a national joke taking 19 appearances to finaly score and Fernando Morientes continued his struggles since arriving in January 2005.
In January 2006, Danish centre-back Daniel Agger became a bargain signing for £5m and Benítez further won over the hearts of his supporters by re-signing the legendary Robbie Fowler on a free transfer. Peter Crouch found his scoring touch and became crucial in Liverpool's FA Cup run.
By this time, Benítez gained even greater respect as a tactical genius by out-managing both Sir Alex Ferguson and the outspoken José Mourinho in the competition. In the final that was the last to be held at Cardiff, the Reds summoned their "Istanbul spirit" again coming from behind and defeating West Ham on penalties.
Liverpool were expected to then push on in 2006-07 and give rivals Chelsea and Manchester United a run for their money for the Premier League. Backed by the combined £15.5m capture of more reputable striking options in Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy goals were expected. The signings proved unable to solve the club's scoring woes. In the second season following his return, Robbie Fowler looked his age at 32 and unlike the brilliant player of his youth.
The highly-touted Chilean Mark González teamed with fellow winger Jermaine Pennant for £11.2m to add width, but neither looked the part. Liverpool finished an embarrassing 21 points off the pace of title winners Manchester United. Again, the Reds mounted an impressive run in the Champions League boosted by the January signings of wing-back Álvaro Arbeloa and Argentine hard-man Javier Mascherano. Benítez again out-maneuvered his enemy Mourinho to reach the 2007 Athens final but narrowly lost to the vengeful AC Milan.
The summer of 2007 began with the arrival of American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Rafa immediately clashed with the duo over broken promises and the Americans attempted to woo former Germany manager Jürgen Klinsmann behind the Spaniard's back.
Meanwhile, Liverpool supporters celebrated the landmark signing of Spanish superstar Fernando Torres, who arrived from Atlético Madrid in a £20m part-exchange with Luis García going in the opposite direction. Liverpool's new number 9 was joined at Anfield along with creative talents in Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel for £16.5m.
The Reds could not muster a serious Premier League title challenge, finishing fourth, but splendidly dispatched both Inter Milan and Arsenal in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Once again, Chelsea were their foes in the semi-final but this time Liverpool lost narrowly over two legs. Benítez barely missed out on reaching a third Champions League final in four seasons.
Torres was joined by Irish international striker Robbie Keane who arrived in the summer of 2008 for £19m. The two were expected to form an all-world partnership but Keane suffered a goal-scoring drought similarly to Peter Crouch years earlier. The Irishman found himself left out of the starting 11 frequently as Steven Gerrard was pushed forward into Keane's support striker role. Keane moved back to his previous club Tottenham Hotspur in January 2009 as Rafa claimed that the signing was chief executive Rick Parry's decision.
This brought the power struggle at Liverpool into the pubic light as Benítez pushed for Parry's eventual removal. The Spaniard demanded more control over transfers as well as changes in the structure of the club.
An equally disappointing player was £8m Italian left-back Andrea Dossena. Strangely, Dossena scored in Liverpool's two greatest victories of the season in the Champions League knockout stage 4-0 win against Real Madrid and the 4-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford. Liverpool were knocked out again by Chelsea in the Champions League but this time in the quarter-finals. Benítez just missed out on lifting the club's first Premier League trophy as they finished four points behind winners Manchester United.
Reds supporters were sad to see a familiar face exit before the start of the 2009-10 season. Xabi Alonso had become a key player since his 2004 arrival at Anfield but moved to Real Madrid for £30m. The transfer seemed to be partially fueled by Rafa's pursuit of Gareth Barry the previous summer and Alonso admitted that this played a part in his exit.
Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani joined for £17m and was expected to replace Alonso's brilliance. England international right-back Glen Johnson was also recruited for £18.5m. Benítez had decided that these two signings were more important needs than the glaring lack of depth at striker besides the remarkable Fernando Torres.
Another area that went ignored was the glaring hole at left-back as Fábio Aurélio turned injury prone and Emiliano Insúa proved to be "out of his depth." Versatile wing-back Álvaro Arbeloa could have easily fit the role but was allowed to join Real Madrid for £4m. The departures of Alonso and veteran leader Sami Hyypiä seemed to hurt the club's mentality as well as their play on the pitch.
Injuries also played a large role as Torres, Gerrard, Johnson, Agger, and Aquilani all suffered long-term absences. Liverpool finished a shocking seventh place in the Premier League and were knocked out in the Champions League group stage. A strong Europa League run was ended against Atlético Madrid as the Reds could not compete with "Los Rojiblancos" sans the inspirational Torres.
Rumors of player unrest came up throughout the season as Benítez's signings, tactics and policies came under scrutiny. The voices of discontent grew louder as various English newspapers reported that big-name Liverpool players demanded their manager's removal. Hicks and Gillett came to their decision to offer Rafa a buyout and the Spaniard reluctantly accepted a £6m payoff. The Benítez era suddenly came to a halting end.
Rafael Benítez took over a club that was in need of great repair and brought immediate success, restoring Liverpool 's European reputation. He came tantalizingly close in 2008-09 to delivering the club's first English top-flight title since Kenny Dalglish in 1990. His record in European competitions was unmatched by any rival manager during his reign at Anfield.
Rafa's impressive signings of Xabi Alonso, Luis García, Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres will be tough to match for whoever replaces him. He had many chances to join higher paying top-level European clubs with a significantly larger transfer budgets. Rafa instead battled with the American owners to fight for the betterment of the club and carried Liverpool's traditions proudly.
All of this combined with his managerial record, dedication to his job and understanding of Liverpool's supporters made him an extremely beloved figure to the Kop faithful. Despite the unfitting end to Benítez's era as Liverpool boss, he will certainly be a very difficult act to follow.
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