Rafa Benitez is so ingrained in the public imagination as a Liverpool legend – and certainly Everton fans could not erase the memory – that sometimes you have to remind yourself that his heart was with Real Madrid long before he came to Merseyside.
Not that it will spark divided loyalties this weekend when the two giants of European football play the Champions League final on Saturday in Paris. Meeting Benitez last week in West Kirby, where he and his family have lived for almost 20 years and where his thoroughly Liverpudlian daughters have grown up, is to be reminded of where his roots are now.
Yet Saturday’s Champions League final between two clubs he managed – one for six years, winning perhaps the most famous Champions League final of all, and the other, in true Real Madrid fashion, for six months – offers a rare opportunity to revisit his youth.
Rafa Benitez has claimed he knows the answer for Jurgen Klopp to overcome Carlo Ancelotti
And allows him to be reminded of falling in love with football for the first time. So, Benitez is 13 years old and heading down the Paseo de la Castellana, one of the most elegant streets in Madrid, from the old Real Madrid training ground to the Bernabeu, where he and his youth team-mates would trick their way into the ground, sharing their precious tickets by passing them over the fence.
Benitez was a teenage prodigy at the youth team until injury diverted him into coaching at the academy. But his first football memories were forged at the Bernabeu and they hold a warning for Liverpool.
‘We would finish the training session on a Saturday morning and walk, sometimes run, down the Paseo de la Castellana to the Bernabeu. You had to get there early. We had a pass and we would pass it [over the wall] to friends and to each other! Then we were in the gallinero … ‘It literally means the hen house in Spanish but colloquially it suggests the cheap seats right at the back of the stadium.
‘We were in the third tier at the back and you have to stand,’ Benitez says. ‘You could [only just] see the players from there but you were recognizing them because you were training every day with them. I liked Vicente del Bosque [who would coach Real Madrid to their 2000 and 2002 Champions League wins and Spain’s 2010 World Cup win] because he had quality. But I also liked Uli Stielike, a strong character.
Benitez spent six years coaching Liverpool where he won an FA Cup and a Champions League
‘You could sit in the seats at the beginning but later it was impossible because everyone was coming. I remember Kevin Keegan at Hamburg [in the 1980 European Cup semi-final]. Perez Garcia was doing man to man against him and everyone was saying, “Oh, fantastic!” because Kevin Keegan was doing nothing. [Real won 2-0] And then they [Hamburg] destroyed us [5-0] in Germany! ‘
This was an era when Real Madrid were losing their grip on the trophy they have defined. Between 1966 and 1998, they could not win it, famously losing to Liverpool in the 1981 final.
Their domination of this tournament began again in 1998, since when they have won it seven times to complete their record of 13 victories. Yet even though it was a comparative downtime in Europe, the Bernabeu was creating something special, which has perhaps come to fruition this season.
‘They talk about Bernabeu, what it means, when I was a kid watching the games and they had to score three goals to win the game, four goals. Against Anderlecht it was six goals once. ‘ That was the UEFA Cup in 1984, where Real Madrid won 6-1 after losing the first leg 3-0.
But there are many comebacks written in the annals: the 5-1 win over Derby County in 1975 after losing 4-1 at the Baseball Ground; the 3-0 win over Celtic in 1980 after losing 2-0 at Parkhead. And yet even those legends have been surpassed this year in the comebacks against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City when, on the brink of elimination, they have somehow dug themselves out, largely thanks to Karim Benzema.
Benitez was at Real Madrid before managing Liverpool and returned five years after the Reds stint
Benitez is steeped in the club’s history. ‘The Real Madrid mentality is to win every single game, every trophy. In the time of Paco Gento, Alfredo Di Stefano, when they won six European Cups, they were the strongest team in Europe. And they manage pressure well. ‘
They do still. Chelsea had them on the ropes, and were 10 minutes from knocking them out. Against City, Real Madrid were 5-3 down as the 90th minute ticked by before three goals in a five-minute spell saved them.
‘They are doing something right,’ says Benitez, with a wry smile and taking issue with the proposition that Madrid should not even be in the final. ‘You can talk of the substitutions, the luck – but they have the mentality to do it.’
He has coached many of these players. He signed Casemiro from Porto, worked with Benzema and Luka Modric. With the latter, there is a temptation to focus on his extraordinary technical ability but Benitez points to his indomitable character as the key to his greatness.
Benitez worked with a number of players in Madrid – and oversaw Casemiro’s signing
‘When the team are under pressure he has the personality, the character to receive the ball and help his team-mates. You can be technically very good but if you are scared or you are worried about the fans or the pressure you can not (succeed). Real Madrid are used to being in finals. I was in the academy from the age of 13 to 20 and if you finished second in the league, it was like a defeat. You are always thinking about winning. ‘
Benzema has always demonstrated flashes of brilliance. When Benitez was at Real, Benzema was charged with blackmail, an infamous case for which he was convicted last year. Perhaps simply no longer being in court and tied up with lawyers is responsible for his renaissance at 34. But Benitez also feels he is driving now there is no Cristiano Ronaldo, nor even Gareth Bale (who is peripheral) to draw attention away.
‘He’s one of the best in the world. He was always clever, very good movements and a good finisher. But now he’s more precise because [before] he could miss chances. Now he says I will take responsibility and I will make the difference. It’s not that he has to rely on someone else. ‘
The dangers are obvious. Liverpool may be the best team in Europe, the favorites and yet Benitez knows what it is like to win a Champions League without the best team.
When Benitez was at Real, Karim Benzema was charged with blackmail, an infamous case for which he was convicted last year
Benitez feels Benzema is thriving now there is no Cristiano Ronaldo to draw attention away
His 2005 triumph, perhaps the most extraordinary comeback of all, from 0-3 down to 3-3 and a victory on penalties, was achieved with a modest collection of individuals within a clear tactical framework enhanced by a formidable team spirit, exemplified by Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.
Liverpool were the fifth best team in England. ‘The best team in Europe was probably AC Milan,’ says Benitez. ‘We played against the top sides – Juventus [in the quarters]Chelsea [in the semis] and AC Milan in the final. And we won on merit.
‘You have to analyze the context. We had a £ 20million budget. We were not the richest, we had Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. They were much stronger than us financially. Then you have to compete with the rest of the Premier League to be in the top four. ‘
He remembers all the details of the final, in which he sparred with Carlo Ancelotti, in charge of Real Madrid now. ‘I made the decision to play Milan Baros and Xabi Alonso to play to our strengths. With injury to Harry Kewell [after 23 minutes]we had to adjust a little and we had to make the substitution [bringing on Dietmar Hamann] because Kaka was getting between the lines. Alonso did not have the legs to cover him and Gerrard at this time was a box-to-box player. We had an issue there … ‘
An understatement perhaps, as Milan raced to a 3-0 lead orchestrated by Kaka. ‘We changed to three at the back and we had control. We [Carlo and I] were reacting to each other. I remember the last one, he put Serginho on the left and we had to put Steven Gerrard, finishing at right wing-back.
‘He [Carlo] was making the right decisions. And we were making the right decisions. You can still make mistakes, even if you are experienced because the other manager is also working! ‘
Benitez coached Jamie Carragher (bottom) and Steven Gerrard during his Liverpool tenure
Benitez worked under the nightmare ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. He is full of praise for the current Liverpool set-up, the owners and Jurgen Klopp, a manager who like Benitez gets the city in a way that is essential if you are to be a success at the club.
‘Because we were successful and were doing well, and also because of the way we behaved – very professional – we built the connection with the fans. And you understand what the team means for them and for the city. The people realize you are giving everything.
The Reds will be looking to replicate their 2004-05 Champions League success this year
‘I am quite pragmatic and I am not very agitated, but I am emotional inside and I am proud to see players achieving things. But Klopp is more emotional and extrovert and you can see all these things in him.
‘I would say inside I have the same emotions but he is more demonstrative – and it is good for the fans. They see him and think, “Wow, he has passion”. But you can have passion working 12 hours a day, trying to improve everything and the academy. ‘
He is ready for those 12-hour days again, despite his experience at Everton, where he feels promises made to him on arrival were never fulfilled and where the Liverpool factor always hung over him.
His time off since January has been spent developing new software to analyze games. He is growing more sceptical of the fashion for playing out from the back, believing that it is now a cliche and easy to exploit.
‘We are encouraging players to play out in circumstances that are quite dangerous. We have to know why and when to do it. When you do it, are you a better manager because you play modern football? No, you are a manager who can sometimes risk your team being relegated or qualifying for the Champions League. The target always has to be to play well to win. Not to play so social media will say “Well done” to you. ‘
The obsession with detail remains. He has analyzed 4,000 passages of play to gather his data and analyze how he will approach the next job.
The passion, which initially burned bright in the cheap seats of the gallinero at the Bernabeu under Del Bosque and Stielike, is undimmed.
Benitez was relieved of his duty at Everton earlier in the season after a string of poor results