Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

James Lawton: Rafael Benitez's rapid fall from grace

Rafael Benitez
Rafael Benitez

There may be a day when Rafa Benitez runs out of other people to blame. Then, if he has time, he might just be able to rebuild a little credibility.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder where he went wrong.



Getting on a plane to Milan and replacing Jose Mourinho plainly wasn't an act of genius but, of course, it goes back a lot further and runs much deeper than that.



Overweening arrogance is the most plausible explanation for the speed with which he has translated the reputation he gained while winning two La Liga titles with Valencia and the Champions League with Liverpool into a level of posturing that is now little short of surreal.



It is all the more bizarre under the shadow of a sacking by Internazionale, which would be humiliatingly swift even by Italian standards.



Most careers in football tend to erode down the years. They get chipped away by the rigours of maintaining a level of performance, constantly having to reproduce the best and the sharpest of your ability. But in Benitez's case the process could hardly have been faster had it been spliced into a Charlie Chaplin movie.



Mostly obviously, he has lost touch with the oldest truth of coaching success: you are nothing without your players. You can lecture them, you can throw a thousand blackboard lessons at them, but none of it is any good if they no long want to play for you.



That is the kernel of the job, and if Benitez had forgotten this at Anfield, if he had appeared ever more the self-parodying schoolmaster, there could hardly have been a better reality check than some brief analysis of the astonishing performance of the man he has attempted to succeed at San Siro.



Whatever you think of Mourinho's emphasis as a football man, it was not hard to see the key to his success with Inter. He lifted them beyond their previous levels of serial success in Serie A, he made them champions of Europe and stopped the wonder of the soccer age, Barcelona in full flight, because he had a ruthlessly specific game plan and, more importantly, his players loved him. Wesley Sneijder said he would kill for Mourinho. Marco Materazzi wept in the departing coach's arms.



For Benitez it was not a place or a time to produce some over-arching belief in your own powers, not with Liverpool in ruins back at Anfield – not unless you believed all those loyalist placards declaring that every scintilla of blame could be diverted from you to the absentee American landlords.



Benitez's opening statement in the summer to an Inter following that had warmed only slowly to the all-conquering Mourinho was that he wanted to improve the quality of the team's football. It needed to be more subtle, more sophisticated.



Now he delivers a mind-blowing ultimatum to Inter president Massimo Moratti. It is a three-point edict demanding 100 per cent support of the coach, the signing of three or more new players by a team who won everything before them seven months ago, or, failing that, a swift call to his agent to sort out another pay-off.



As if Moratti wasn't underwhelmed enough by the fact that his once all-conquering team trail Milan by 13 points in the Serie A table, he is now said to be rabidly disenchanted. Handing him an ultimatum, say the Italian football cognoscenti, suggests a certain detachment from reality. But then hasn't that been the Benitez problem for quite some time?

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