What next for Rafa Benitez? One-time European champion must choose wisely after chaotic career choices
It was inevitable that Everton would sack Rafa Benitez . In theory he was a good appointment. The reality was different. The 61-year-old has the sort of obsessive nature and organisational talents needed to untangle a club in a mess. Just not this club.
Almost no one wanted him. Not the owner, not the board, not the fans. Alisher Usmanov , the main sponsor and business associate of Farhad Moshiri , was the Spaniard’s biggest advocate. Moshiri, the man with his name over Goodison’s front door, was always dubious.
Benitez had committed just about the worst crime in the eyes of the Gwladys Street. He was a former Liverpool manager who called Everton “a small club.”
When the news of his dismissal reached Anfield during the 3-0 victory over Brentford , the Kop bellowed out the name of the man who delivered the Champions League in his first season on Merseyside. Benitez’s finest moment, the victory on penalties against Milan in Istanbul after being three goals down at half time, was 17 years ago but remains an iconic moment in Liverpool history.
Things turned sour at Anfield within two years. George Gillett and Tom Hicks bought the club and Benitez found himself embroiled in a war with the American owners. He was sacked in 2010. Since then, every job he has taken seemed to be the worst possible choice at the time.
He replaced Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, weeks after the Serie A club had won the Champions League. It was an impossible act to follow – especially as Massimo Moratti, the owner, was basking in the glory of emulating his father in making the team European champions and reluctant to spend any cash on an ageing squad.
A short spell at Chelsea – where he was hated by the fans almost as badly as at Goodison – was successful. He won the Europa League but no friends in the stands and no chance of staying beyond his short-term contract. There was more success at Napoli – a Coppa Italia – but dealing with the erratic owner Aurelio De Laurentiis was not easy. Friends and confidantes scratched their heads at his choices and his refusal to wait for suitable positions once another job offer was on the table.
The one role he could not turn down was at Real Madrid, his boyhood club. Even though the atmosphere and politics were toxic, this was the third time he has been asked. Little more than six months later Benitez was gone from the Bernabeu.
Mike Ashley came calling next. Most managers with quality credentials would have run a mile. Newcastle United had deteriorated into farce. There was never going to be a happy ending while Ashley was in control and after three fractious years Benitez left for Dalian in the Chinese Super League.
The pandemic cut his lucrative spell in China short but there were promising options in England. Benitez formed a relationship with Amanda Staveley when the businesswoman was trying to buy Liverpool for Dubai in 2008. He was first choice to be Newcastle manager after the Saudi-backed takeover. When the Premier League delayed ratification of the buyout, he lost patience and went to Everton. Had he waited, he would be in charge at St James’ Park now.
Where does it leave the man who won two La Liga titles with Valencia before coming to the Premier League? His reputation is at a low. An air of chaos has followed him for a decade and a half. Everton’s problems have very little to do with Benitez . He did not improve the team but he should have given such a dysfunctional club the widest of swerves.
The biggest plus for Benitez is that he is still highly respected by Staveley and if things go wrong for Eddie Howe, he is likely to be at the top of the list for the Newcastle job. The fans on Tyneside still love him and if they go down the former manager has experience in bringing the team up from the Championship.
Benitez is still a high-class operator. His choices make his career appear worse than it actually is. He thought he could rebuild Everton even though he knew there was no money to spend and that players like James Rodriguez were picking up cheques without picking up the slack.
Chances are running out for Benitez. He needs to break an ugly habit with his next appointment and think deeply about whether it is the right move. This is a manager who cannot afford another bad choice.