La Liga

Rafa Memorium

June 2004. Liverpool Football Club had just finished the domestic season a massive 30 points behind Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’. Supporters were downbeat, players were questioning their futures and the club were in desperate need of change. Although having qualified for the Champions League this, as the board stated, was a “minimum requirement”, not the ultimate goal. The club required fresh impetus, someone with new ideas, with a proven track record in delivering success. Liverpool’s hopes were realised with the arrival of Rafa Benitez.

After winning two La Liga titles with Valencia in the land dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, Benitez was becoming highly sought after, following such a remarkable achievement. Add to that European success in the UEFA Cup and Liverpool had found a manager who knew how to win. Liverpool fans were cautious, recognising the difficulty of a foreign manager arriving in a new league and the time it could take for him to adapt. The 2004/05 season was to be a transitional one…. how wrong we were. Despite a disappointing domestic season which resulted in a 5th place finish, Liverpool were on the path to incredible glory.

Rafael Benitez will be forever etched in the hearts and minds of Liverpool’s supporters and will remain part of the history of the club thanks to that miraculous night in Istanbul. The greatest comeback of all time. The greatest European Cup Final of all time. Liverpool fans struggle to find enough superlatives to describe the elation, excitement and sheer joy felt on May 25th 2005. Rafa Benitez had secured the greatest prize in European football in his first season in charge, the clubs first in over 20 years, with a squad that, at best, could only be labelled as average, save for a few exceptional individuals. Just a year previously, Liverpool were sliding towards European oblivion. Benitez had well and truly put us back on the map.

He followed that victory with success in the FA Cup the next season, becoming the first manager in Liverpool’s history to win two major cups in his first two seasons in charge, quite an achievement considering what had come before him. Silverware was also added to the trophy room with victories in the Community Shield and European Super Cup.

Throughout Benitez’s reign, ignoring the struggles of last season, Liverpool were a genuine force in Europe, achieving another Champions League Final appearance, which sadly ended in disappointment, and semi-final and quarter-f inal appearances. It took Alex Ferguson nine years to reach his second Champions League Final as opposed to Benitez’s two, and with far bigger resources than the Spaniard had. Benitez managed the team to victory against all of the biggest names in Europe, including victories in the Nou Camp, Bernabeu and San Siro. The media argue his focus was more on Europe rather than the Premier League, perhaps true, but Benitez still came agonisingly close to securing Liverpool’s first league title in 19 years, finishing four points behind United in 2008/09. Call me biased, but I believe that if Fernando Torres hadn’t missed such a large period of that season than Liverpool would have been Champions. With less money than their rivals and a smaller wage bill, Liverpool arguably shouldn’t even have been such a strong challenger. Rafael Benitez and the players exceeded realistic expectations.

Benitez also had to deal with the change of ownership which arrived in 2007, something which also clouds judgment on his time at Anfield. Such is the mess that the two Americans have created at the club and their well documented current struggles, it is now very easy for the media to claim Benitez as a resounding failure, isolating last season’s struggles within the whole club rather than viewing the Spaniard’s full six year reign and the notable achievements they carried.

Much focus has been placed on Benitez’s signings since his arrival with many claiming them a disaster. The Spaniard rather deserves huge credit for signing some of the world’s best players for the club, something that hadn’t been evident since the glory days of the 1980s. Pepe Reina, now regarded as the best goalkeeper in the Premier League was signed in 2005 for £6 million, a bargain price for such quality. Xabi Alonso also arrived for £10.5 million, one of the best midfielders to play for the club, and one who played a huge part in the victory in Istanbul. The fact that he was bought by Real Madrid for £30 million shows how highly regarded he was throughout Europe. Maybe Liverpool weren’t just a two man team after all…Javier Mascherano is another, arguably the best holding midfielder in the world, a player who somehow found himself warming the bench at West Ham. Benitez recognised his quality, allowed him to flourish and realise his potential. Benitez’s biggest transfer success though has to be the arrival, in 2007, of Fernando Torres. El Nino’s impact on the Premier League has been extraordinary, developing into the most feared striker in Europe, coveted by all of the biggest clubs. Liverpool paid Atletico Madrid £20 million to bring him to Anfield, another fantastic piece of business. In today’s market, Torres can realistically be valued at three times that amount. What is important to note is that all of the players mentioned, although recognising the size and stature of Liverpool in European football, all chose to sign for the club, in part, because of Rafael Benitez.

Admittedly, Benitez made very bad signings, something, which seems to have ultimately proven his downfall. Some current Liverpool players are not good enough to play for the club, the likes of David Ngog, Nabil El Zhar, Philip Degen, Lucas all need to be moved on. The new manager will hopefully begin this change depending on the funds available to him to replace these players. Last season was a painful experience for all supporters, 19 defeats in all competitions an unacceptable total for a club such as Liverpool. After finishing runners-up the previous season, the drop to seventh place was just too big. And so it became apparent once more that the club were approaching another time of change.

June 2010. Supporters are downbeat, players are questioning their futures and the club are in desperate need of change. This time with not even Champions League football to look forward to, the writing was on the wall for Benitez. Whilst agreeing with the decision to part ways with the manager to try and reinvigorate the club, to allow last season to be the judgement of Rafael Benitez would be shortsighted and simply wrong. For supporter’s the overriding memory of Benitez will be Istanbul and rightfully so, a night near impossible to be repeated, but it is important to remember his reign was much more than that. Over the six years, Benitez has built the club back up to be one of the leading names in European club football, having signed some of the best players in the world, and given the fans nights to forever cherish. Such highs will easily banish the lows.  The importance, therefore, of ensuring the club’s absence from the Champions League is a short one cannot be overstated to not let such work go to waste. Hicks and Gillett next out please.

The Rafalution is at its end, but its legacy will forever live on amongst Liverpool supporters, hopefully for the right reasons.

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