Rafa Benitez ready to bridge the gap at Chelsea
HIS words were chosen carefully, but the underlying message was clear as Rafa Benitez yesterday indicated that he can be the long-term solution to Chelsea's problems.
The sacking of Andre Villas-Boas added a distinctly topical edge to Benitez's visit to Trinity College, where he was last night awarded an Honorary Patronage of the University Philosophical Society. After almost two years out of the game, the 51-year-old spoke like a man who would relish a stern examination at Stamford Bridge.
It's understood that Benitez has already turned down the chance to take the reins at the troubled club until the end of the season as he would prefer a longer crack at the job. When that was put directly to the Spaniard, he brushed off the suggestion although his specific response referred to the absence of an offer on the table 'at this moment'.
What is apparent, however, is that Benitez would welcome the kind of challenge that Villas-Boas' replacement faces. And, in a strong defence of his credentials, Benitez tackled the assertion that he would be unsuitable for Chelsea because his teams have a reputation for a style of play that is at odds with Roman Abramovich's grand plan that involves successful, entertaining football.
"In 2008/2009 at Liverpool, we scored 119 goals, we were the team that scored the most goals in the Premier League, we finished second with 86 points, and if you remember the Champions League games with Real Madrid, Barcelona and AC Milan, you will know that people say things that are not right," he replied, with a polite smile.
Benitez was sympathetic towards Villas-Boas without going over the top. Other figures within the game have been critical of how quickly Chelsea dismissed the Portuguese coach, with the League Managers Association chief Richard Bevan describing the London club's behaviour as an embarrassment.
When Benitez was asked if others managers would shy away from the job because of Abramovich's trigger-happy approach, his answer was more understanding towards the viewpoint of the Russian billionaire.
"I think at the top sides, the manager is always under pressure," he said. "The new owners in football are investing big money. Who can win? Just one team. There are four trophies in England, but the rest of the teams will not win. If you spend big money and the other (club) is doing the same, just one can win, that's pressure for everyone."
Benitez was keen to stress that he has experience of dealing with high-level scrutiny. He says that he has turned down several club teams and one international job because they weren't the right fit for his ambitions. "I would like to challenge for trophies and have this option," he said.
"You cannot wait, and wait, and wait. I know it's not easy to have the right club. Normally at the beginning of the season and at the end of the season, you have the time to decide. And I have had offers. People say Rafa has no offers. I have had a lot of offers.
"After 25 years managing teams and winning some trophies, you can wait and see. How managers have experience at winning in three different countries, the Spanish League, the Champions League and the FIFA World Cup? All these things together I can wait a little bit," he added.
"I am a manager now, waiting for a job so I cannot stop speculation. I cannot stop people talking about this or that and rumours. People are talking about the Chelsea job. They have now (Roberto) Di Matteo in charge. I have to respect the manager in charge, and I have just to wait and see if something happens in the future. As a manager with Champions League experience, I am open to offers. I need a proper offer on the table and then I can say yes or no."
It's almost two years since his departure from Liverpool. Benitez is currently devoting his energies to his website, which involves writing and analysing games. He lives in the Merseyside area and remains settled in England, admitting that his preference is to return to the game in the Premier League.
He retains a strong affection for Liverpool, and feel that it is mostly reciprocated by the club's supporters. A hypothetical scenario is raised where he ends up back at Anfield in the opposing dugout. Chelsea, for example. What would the reaction be?
"I thought that nobody can argue that the Liverpool fans love me," he responds, again with a grin. "If we agree with this, then what do you want for somebody you love? The best for him.
"I cannot be waiting at home for five years. Everybody understands that I will need a job. If they want me to have the best, do they want me to manage a team at the bottom of the table or manage a team at the top of the table and try to win trophies?"
The latter scenario is the obvious intention. His only promise to Reds followers was that he would never say yes to Manchester United or Everton. Every other location is fair game.
"I said there are two clubs I wouldn't go to," he continues, "but that's just two. That means there are a lot of other jobs. But sometimes you cannot choose where you are going."
If he did have that choice, you suspect that London would be calling.