Mourinho legacy a curse for obsessive Benitez
"Look, ma, top of the world"
Published 23/12/2010 | 05:00
There is a taste of Jimmy Cagney about the end of Rafael Benitez. He had just led Inter Milan to their fifth trophy of 2010 and the one that to a Martian would sound the most prestigious -- the Club World Cup.
A few days later, the Inter president, Massimo Moratti, who had told reporters that he would rate his club's season as "10 out of 10" if they won the trophy in the desert heat of Abu Dhabi, is on the brink of sacking Benitez.
Ostensibly, it would be a decision that makes the dismissals of Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce at Newcastle and Blackburn seem almost logical, but the Club World Cup is such a flawed concept -- like having a cricket World Cup that involved Finland and Chile playing Australia -- that even the hundred or so supporters who greeted Benitez's team at Malpensa Airport did not imagine they were hailing the conquerors of the known world.
Inter had, after all, become world champions by beating Seongnam Ilhwa of South Korea and then disposing of TP Mazembe of the Congo. They were seventh in Serie A, 13 points adrift of AC Milan, and according to the city's daily paper 'La Stampa', Benitez was "walking with a pistol to his head."
Despite the fact they had transported 3,000 flags and 8,000 pieces of coloured card -- for use in pre-match choreography -- to the Arabian Gulf, Abu Dhabi did not compare to the Bernabeu in May when Jose Mourinho became the first manager of Inter since Helenio Herrera in 1965 to capture Europe's premier trophy.
Mourinho's thought patterns must be similar to those that overtook Don Revie when hearing that Brian Clough had been fired by Leeds after 44 days, although it is unlikely the two enemies will be appearing on Rai Uno to debate the matter -- as Revie and Clough did on Yorkshire Television. But the Christmas wine in Madrid would have tasted very sweet.
Of course, it was folly to follow Mourinho (Benitez, bizarrely, had all images of Mourinho removed from the Inter training ground after taking over), just as it was folly to follow Revie and it will be to follow Alex Ferguson. It was especially risky since Benitez was at least third choice for the job. Moreover, Benitez has taken no kind of break since his dismissal from Liverpool -- a job which, disgracefully for a man who had taken the club to two European Cup finals, he was told he had lost by text.
He needed time away from football -- difficult for a man with almost no interests outside the game -- if only to sketch out the rest of his career. His final season at Anfield had the overpowering sense of staleness -- the failure to keep Xabi Alonso, the signing of Alberto Aquilani, exhausted tactics, tired results. His head was empty; it did not need to be filled with Moratti's barked orders.
Benitez is no politician. His hugely successful time at Valencia ended in a tearful resignation speech laced with venom at directors who had refused to authorise the kind of spending he believed necessary to bring the European Cup to the Mestalla.
He may have won La Liga twice, he may have organised Valencia to withstand Didier Drogba in the Uefa Cup final, but his most famous line -- "I asked for a sofa and they bought me a lampshade" -- was indicative of a man who thought he was entitled to be backed with plenty of hard cash, and reacted with the petulance of a Kevin Keegan if it was refused.
He did not, as Roy Hodgson had done at the San Siro, cultivate Moratti as a friend. At Anfield he forged an alliance with Tom Hicks, but it was one of convenience, based on a mutual dislike of the chief executive, Rick Parry. In his final interview at Anfield, Benitez complained that if only he had been allowed to sign Dani Alves from Barcelona and Gareth Barry, Liverpool's season might not have disintegrated.
At the San Siro, he had expected to be able to bring in the Genoa forward, Giuseppe Sculli, and forge a reunion with the man Diego Maradona reckons to be the best holding midfielder in the world, Javier Mascherano.
He got neither and Moratti compounded matters by deciding to pass on Sao Paulo's Hernandes, who is one of the chief reasons why Lazio are pressing AC Milan at the top of Serie A. Lost in a blizzard of injuries, unable to motivate a side that had won everything, Benitez's regime has fallen apart with surprising speed.
As Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher will testify, Benitez is not a people person -- at Valencia he once fell out with Kily Gonzalez over whether you could eat ice cream at a pre-match meal. However, he is a supremely careful tactician, Revie-like in his attention to detail. He once told Balague that, at Melwood, he would try to anticipate every situation his Liverpool team might experience on the pitch.
"He works on the team, the shape and the tactics every single day," his then captain, Gerrard said of him two years ago. "He is really keen on working on the smallest details."
Benitez liked to spend time with individuals, while Hodgson has used a more collective approach.
At Inter, they complained that they saw far less of the ball than they had under Mourinho, and many thought that if Benitez worked so deep into the night anticipating tactics, how did he not foresee that Gareth Bale would rip Maicon apart in their recent Champions League encounter at Tottenham, unless his full-back was given protection?
This morning, Benitez is on the Wirral, where he was probably happiest with his dog and cat and games of chess. The world champion with a plastic crown needs time away from the game whose tactics have consumed him child. His career is in check, but it is not yet mate. (© Independent News Service)