Friday, 29 October 2010
Rafa's Cracking Luck
Almost exactly a year ago, before this blog was even so much as a twinkle in its fathers’ eyes, I wrote this article for When Saturday Comes about Rafael Benitez. Assuming you don’t read it – I don’t know, maybe you’re a disillusioned Liverpool fan, maybe you just don’t like Spanish people – the gist of it is this: Benitez is great when he inherits a side. When he starts buying players, things invariably go tits up.
Before his move to Italy, Benitez’s managerial career offered plenty of supporting evidence. Taking over Héctor Cúper’s exceptional Valencia side (think Aimar, Ayala, Kily Gonzalez, Baraja), Benitez won two Spanish league titles and a UEFA Cup. Adding but four players to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool side in 2004, Benitez led them to unlikely Champions League success in 2005.
It would be wrong to write off everything since as unmitigated failure. Benitez’s time at Anfield saw another Champions League final appearance in 2007 and second place to Manchester United in the league the following year. But his inability to strengthen the squad further (especially given the departures) was ultimately his undoing. Off-the-field pressure, bad luck with injuries and what turned out to be innate stubbornness meant the foibles of the team Benitez had built suddenly and dramatically caught up with him.
So. Rafa is now in Italy, only this time the team he inherited had just won a treble. The squad is by and large sensational. The odds on him repeating his ‘success with a new club’ trick, therefore, appear stacked in his favour. He has already won a trophy, in fact, the Supercoppa Italiana (at the end of August), in which Inter beat Roma 3-1, though they lost to Atletico Madrid in the Super Cup final six days later.
A glance at the form book since then makes for good reading. One defeat in all competitions, away to Roma – last year’s title contenders – in the league at the end of September. Three points clear at the top of their Champions League group. Samuel Eto’o is scoring freely. Inter have only conceded four goals in eight games.
Such form suggests a team at the summit of Serie A. Well, nearly. It hasn’t all been plain sailing. While Inter are unbeaten at home, they have only won two of four. While Eto’o may be on fire, he’s the only one scoring. Diego Milito, though recently injured, is a shadow of last season’s battering ram and scored his only two goals this season in a 4-0 demolition of Bari. Roma might have inflicted Benitez’s only defeat, but they are really struggling themselves. Inter have mustered 10 goals and three draws in eight games. The two home draws have seen Inter slip from top of the league to third, four points adrift of Lazio at the top and two points behind Milan in second. Relying on one striker? Costly home draws? Sound familiar?
Well it does, but it’s too early to draw parallels with his time at Liverpool or even Valencia for that matter. This is a much stronger squad than both, for a start, and Benitez has done well to keep it together, with the post-World Cup retention – and now the signing of a new contract – of Wesley Sneijder the obvious highlight. His only action in the transfer market has been to reacquire the ownership rights and therefore the services of McDonald Madriga and Jonathan Biabany, and to bring in goalkeeper Luca Castellazzi from Sampdoria as backup to Julio Cesar. It might be a team still very much in Mourinho’s image, but you would be surprised if Benitez fails to take it close to the Scudetto again this year.
The job, however is an intriguing and irresistible measure of Benitez’s abilities. Can you imagine following Jose Mourinho at a club where the man has just won a treble? It is at once a side too good to refuse to manage, but with the potential to be a thankless task. There is every chance that living in the Portuguese’s shadow will hasten Benitez’s entry into the transfer market as he tries to put his own stamp on the team. That is certainly a prickly area on previous form and Benitez, if he wants to carry on Inter’s success, has precious little time to re-mould Mourinho’s team into his own.
Benitez’s reputation, deserved or otherwise, is of a man who became shaky under pressure and the weight of expectation at Liverpool. The spotlight is again on him here. Lists of facts, rather disturbingly, have been replaced with bottles of milk and suggestive references to ‘milkmen’ and ‘white liquid’. While I never really subscribed to the ‘Rafa’s cracking up’ school of thought, he clearly has demons as a result of his time at Liverpool. Hopefully, he can view Inter as a new and separate challenge. The irony otherwise is that the best squad he has ever inherited could be the one with which he achieves the least.