Rafa Benitez and his Neapolitan bottle of milk
It might be too early too make such a statement, but Rafa Benitez’s managerial acumen will never get its due. For someone who managed to lead a side other than Barcelona or Real Madrid to the La Liga title in the first decade of the new millennium, the focus on Benitez’s days in England-be it while he was at Liverpool or at Chelsea-has been inordinately large. And the probability of a person’s reputation remaining pure as the driven snow in England are as bleak the British weather itself.
Like most young managers, Benitez too tasted success initially in the lower divisions and worked his way up. Real Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremedura, and Tenerife proved to be the stepping stones to the successes of Valencia, where two league titles and a UEFA Cup victory established his burgeoning credentials.
But for one year after he resigned from Valencia, Benitez’s domain-league football-was overwhelmed by the traditional glamour of European football. Having led Liverpool to the Champions League title in his first season in charge, Benitez regularly featured in the final stages of the competition for the next five years, until the English league broke him.
Leading the premier league in mid-2009, Benitez’s public disclosure of his “list” was a clear indication of the strain league football was placing on him, a format of the game his tactical awareness reveled in. Press conferences tend to expose our deepest tendencies and fears, and Benitez was no exception.
While ridicule and a total lack of support at Inter Milan and Chelsea did not prevent him from making additions to his trophy cabinet, Benitez’s microcosm of contradictions seems to have come a full circle at Napoli, with an unbeaten start to the league leading the citizens of Naples dreaming of a return to the halcyon days they spent in bed with Diego Maradona, with another Argentine spearheading their attack a generation later.
Benitez is well aware of how a side is to be recreated after having lost its premier striker, and it can be argued that the loss of Edinson Cavani to Paris St. Germain would have been far more difficult to swallow than Michael Owen’s move from Liverpool to Real Madrid in 2004. However, the singularly efficient usage of the proceeds from Cavani’s sale-Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Raul Albiol, Dries Martens were some of the names brought in-has meant that the Uruguayan’s loss has barely been felt. If anything, miracles have abounded since Benitez took over from Walter Mazzarri: even Mario Balotelli has ended up missing a penalty while pitted against the Partenopei.
In Benitez, Napoli have a manager with a track record few can match, and who is meticulous to the point of being obsessive. More importantly, Benitez seems to have mellowed from his Liverpool and Inter days, with the combative touch replaced by a more understanding one. Gone are the days when Steven Gerrard would crave for a pat on the back from his manager. Benitez’s handling of his players, previously described as cold and detached, has undergone the proverbial sea-change. Why, the Spaniard has even agreed to participate in the shooting of a “Christmas comedy” for Napoli’s film-producer president Aurelio de Laurentiis.
Benitez has often likened Napoli to Liverpool, and the two port cities seem to have given him the space and confidence to do what he does best-create a team which functions on top of a solid tactical foundation. As Benitez said in one of the most memorable media conferences of recent times, white liquid in a bottle has to be milk. Sitting in his manager’s office in southern Italy while the rest of his family continues to live in Wirral, Liverpool, Benitez can be forgiven for thinking that he has at last found his succor in Hamsik and co. Currently second in the Serie A, the signals of a revival in Naples are as obvious as the white semi-skimmed lactose-based fluid that John the milkman delivered to Benitez in Wirral.