Battered and bruised but unbowed
Rafael Benitez remembers it was a different Alex Ferguson he met at Stade de France, on a May night in Paris seven years ago.
The two of them and their wives had been invited by UEFA to Arsenal's Champions League final against Barcelona and it was after Ferguson and Cathy were walking out into the Saint-Denis night that the Manchester United manager was subjected to some almighty abuse from some Arsenal fans, whose side had just lost.
Those were the days when Benitez, who had been Liverpool manager for just two years, did not excite such extreme reactions from English fans and so he was able to step in. He ushered the Fergusons away from the madness.
Benitez doesn't talk openly about this episode, even though he remains understandably indignant about the discourtesy Ferguson is said to have paid him, in not seeking him out to offer a hand of welcome in the Old Trafford dugout when United met Benitez's Chelsea two weeks ago.
Benitez will offer the United manager his own hand on Monday when the Scot brings his team to Stamford Bridge for the FA Cup quarter-final replay, despite Ferguson having also discarded another fundamental courtesy that home managers have extended down the ages – a formal welcome in the programme notes for the visiting coach, however inveterate a foe he might be.
Ferguson's notes for the Old Trafford game were virtually unprecedented in their toxicity: no mention of Benitez and an articulation of how his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo, was hard done by.
"I know where the away bench is and the home bench is so it's very clear," Benitez says. "For me, normally the local manager has to see the away manager and shake his hand."
No point talking about Paris because few want to hear him out, so what's the point pursuing this to death, is his outlook. "The problem here is obvious," he continues.
"It's because I was the Liverpool manager (right) and we (Ferguson and I) were competing, especially when we were competing for the Premier League. So, you know, each one of us has his way to do things. He has his way and I don't think I can say too much. It is his way. I will do my way."
This is how it has become for the Spaniard, who now gives full voice to his thoughts far less, with an awareness that they will only send off another grenade.
If Chelsea fans hear he hankers in the slightest way to stay beyond this summer, he knows the supporters will only amplify their protests against him.
A straight answer to the question of how his wife, Montse, feels about him being simultaneously abused by both home and away fans at Old Trafford will be provocative, just like a full explanation of why he has not selected John Terry much.
Benitez has his opinions and he can be political. But the most significant part of our first proper encounter since last summer is the look on his face, rather than the words from his mouth. It tells you that he actually wants more of what, from the outside, looks like purgatory.
He cannot wait for the run of five games in 13 days which may define his Chelsea career, beginning at Southampton today.
"It's OK. You don't need to look at me like that!" he says, as I make to sit down, looking for material signs in his face of how the past four months have worn him.
The way he plunges straight into some passionate talk about Chelsea shows how the game hooks a manager in, whatever the personal cost to him.
There have been some very ridiculous aspects to the abuse Benitez has taken since he received a telephone call from Roman Abramovich's technical director Michael Emenalo while out in Dubai in November and flew straight back to the North-west, to freshen up for the journey south and drive across London into the unknown.
Top of the pile for sheer lunacy was the tweet by a 15-year-old Liverpool-supporting Czech boy, so dismayed that his hero, Benitez, had signed for Chelsea that he tweeted a fictitious 2007 quote, which had Benitez declaring: "I would never take that (Chelsea) job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool."
The quote, extensively re-published, formed part of the initial body of evidence against Benitez, though this interview is the first the Spaniard knows of its provenance. It was perhaps armed with this knowledge that he publicly discussed the tweet, 48 hours ago.
"I didn't want to go quote by quote (denying what I was supposed to have said) because then you will create more of a situation," he says. "I said something once and then never again, but they all just say 'Oh, Rafa said this; Rafa said that.' It's not true."
He actually claims west London has reacquainted him with some of the managerial pleasures he experienced on Merseyside – still his home and sanctuary. For instance, the company of passing strangers offering him encouragement in the shops – a Liverpool phenomenon – and the messages from Chelsea fans saying "listen, we understand the circumstances, you are doing a good job, carry on. So concentrate on your job because we know you are trying to do the best for the team."
He seems contented because he feels he is in his realm again. "I am working at this level and I can show players things at this level, too. So, I won trophies in three different countries. They can't say 'Rafa doesn't know what he is doing.' Just see the CV.
"It's not just inspiration from the heavens. You are working very hard and analysing things and making decisions."
His critics – and Benitez does divide opinion – will suggest that last observation is a self-serving one, though the events of the Old Trafford quarter-final, when Chelsea fought back from 2-0 down to draw, show he has a point. One of the few true measures of a manager is the effectiveness of his substitutions and Benitez's proactivity against Ferguson provided a powerful riposte to the vitriol poured on him from Chelsea's fans that afternoon. It put into perspective the wry smile on Frank Lampard's face as he was substituted, too.
Benitez feels that the chants, the truculence of substituted players and the personalities provide football's loud background narrative, while the tactics and the development of players – areas where he scores highly – often do not. The Spaniard's most ardent detractor could not deny, for example, that Lampard is scoring more heavily now than he has for several years: 13 from 19 starts under Benitez, which is four short of his tally for all of last season.
"This is because the way we organise the shape of the team allows him to go forward, like he did in the past but he is scoring more goals now than he was at the start of the season," Benitez says.
There is by no means consistency to Chelsea – the second-half performance at Old Trafford has to be set against the desultory display in the 2-0 defeat at Manchester City which prompted Terry, in the dressing room, to question the intensity levels Benitez had demanded.
But the club, effectively eliminated from the Champions League when he took over, could yet win the FA Cup and Europa League and wind up as Premier League runners-up to United.
You sense Benitez would love to entertain the notion of starting the next pre-season at Chelsea, recruiting a capable holding midfielder to balance up those forward runs the central players all want to make – and to compensate for the loss of Lampard, who does not see himself descending to the Ryan Giggs pay bracket.
"Obviously it would be much better to have more time in the season to prepare but at this point the main thing for me is to bring the best thing for my players and finish in the top four, three, two – and not think about the future," Benitez declares, the words meaning little but his expression saying much more. (© Independent News Service)