Benitez can succeed at Madrid if he drowns out the doubters
Carlo Ancelotti left Real Madrid last week as Florentino Pérez announced that the club would look for a new manager. Pérez said that Ancelotti was part of Real Madrid's glorious history now. He would always be the coach who won La Decima, something which could never be forgotten, even as Pérez moved to make Ancelotti history in a very real sense. Ancelotti was now part of Real Madrid's past as they looked to a future which would look very like their past.
So many managerial appointments are a reaction to what went before and, while Rafa Benitez is a very different coach than Ancelotti, in a fundamental way Real Madrid continues unaltered. They are the definition of a modern club while they seem simultaneously determined to resist the rise of the omnipotent coach and promote instead the idea of the secretary-manager as if it's 1927.
Pérez has been here many, many times before, so he might have been tempted to shrug when people wondered what he was doing getting rid of a man who won the European Cup a year ago. During his first spell as president, Pérez decided that Vicente del Bosque was not the man for the future as he embarked on a series of failed coaching appointments which he couldn't offset by buying every famous player in the world.
When he returned in 2009, he did bring Mourinho to the club, an appointment which looked at the time as if Real Madrid was declaring war on itself as well as Barcelona and which unfolded along those lines during his years at the club.
Ancelotti might have been the perfect manager for Real Madrid and there is no doubt that his time there may be seen as the high point of his career. He, too, was a classic appointment in that he was the opposite of Mourinho but he was also the perfect manager for a club like Madrid with the perfect pedigree.
He leaves without bitterness, not for him the silent rages, the enmities and the resentments. For Ancelotti, they are moments wasted, a denial of the over-arching reality of sport and, perhaps, of society which says that powerful people have the power and there's no point fighting it.
Ancelotti as a manager has always been comfortable with football's new world order or the part of it that doesn't spend too much time wondering why there aren't more kids coming through the ranks. He knows what men like Pérez, Roman Abramovich, Silvio Berlusconi and the richest guys in Qatar want and he is able to give it to them. He also understands what the slightly poorer but no less demanding men in his dressing room crave.
Earlier this season, Sergio Ramos said he felt Ancelotti should not be considered an inferior coach to Mourinho, even though that was the way things tended to be reported. Certainly, Ancelotti was a more amenable coach, a man not committed to the conspiratorial view of life and who could make life easier for the players who worked under him.
Benitez, of course, is a different type of manager. In Graham Hunter's magnificent series of podcast interviews, Jamie Carragher recalled last week how Benitez had, in his first years at Liverpool, wondered why the players did everything without dissent during training sessions. He wanted them to think for themselves, to ask questions of the coach who would be happy to answer them, possibly in great detail and late into the night.
This view is contrary to the conventional view of Benitez but then maybe most things that are true about Benitez don't tally with conventional wisdom.
Few managers have been as hamstrung by their public reputation, even if Benitez's own obsessiveness doesn't help him either. He exists only for football as his staff found out one time time when they sat talking about The Sopranos only for Benitez to wonder who was this footballer Tony Soprano they were discussing as he'd never seen him play.
Benitez's problem is that if football is everything to him then everything is also football. The coach who Carragher talked about was less in evidence during his final days at Liverpool when he was fighting wars on all sides, when the game understandably included struggles with owners and managing directors.
Maybe obedience was more important then as he took on everyone, but the coach who wanted questions from those he worked with, who was happy when players expressed themselves, albeit within the game plan worked on meticulously in training, was eroded under that pressure and replaced by the Benitez who looked a lot like the one of parody.
Benitez spent the last year at Anfield defending himself. There were justifiable reasons for some of the criticisms, particularly when they centred on the alienation of Xabi Alonso, but he has rarely been able to free himself of that defensiveness since.
He left Liverpool still fighting the battles nobody else would and succeeded Mourinho at Inter where he would have to compete with him whether he liked it or not. He walked into a raging hysterical psychodrama at Chelsea and then retreated to Naples where, if things never went as well as might have been expected when he arrived with high hopes, they also never looked like a cold night at Stamford Bridge. Today Napoli play a Champions League play-off game against Lazio which will have a bearing on his reputation, but the Madrid job should still be his.
Many have questioned Perez's decision to appoint Benitez but he has an opportunity at the Bernabéu to remind the football world of his abilities. If he was overlooked for some jobs because of an unfair reputation, he appears to have got the Madrid job when his achievements looked like belonging to another time. Yet Madrid, despite all the disadvantages, is a club where he could become the coach who wanted his players to question him once more.
To do that, paradoxically, he might have to stop listening again. There was a point in his time at Liverpool when Benitez began to hear the critics when he had done so well ignoring them.
He has arrived at Madrid making valid points that his coaching style is not as one-dimensional as some suggest but there will be more noise when the Madrid crowd forms its judgment and Mourinho makes his contribution.
If he doesn't listen, he has a chance of succeeding or, at least of doing whatever succeeding looks like at Madrid before Florentino Pérez decides to plan for the future once again.
Sunday Indo Sport