Rafa Benitez gives nod to past European glories but now it’s Newcastle on his mind as he insists – I can still win trophies
- The desire for glory still burns brightly within Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez
- He believes he will have around another decade as a manager and is loving it
- Benitez is emotionally committed to Newcastle but knows investment is needed
- Spaniard believes players are technically superior now to a decade ago
It has been 13 years since that glorious night in Istanbul and the most extraordinary Champions League final in memory.
And even if the immediate concern for Rafa Benitez is collecting a precious three points against Wolves on Sunday, another step hopefully on the way to securing another season of Premier League football for Newcastle, the desire for glory burns as strong as ever.
Plenty of cups followed that epic 2005 Champions League win against AC Milan on penalties after trailing 3-0 at half-time: FA Cup, World Club Cup, Europa League and the Coppa Italia with Napoli in 2014.
Rafa Benitez is emotionally invested in his job at Newcastle but knows he needs funds
The most recent was, of course, the Championship title with Newcastle, an indication of the constrained circumstances in which he currently coaches.
But as two of his former teams, Liverpool and Napoli, face each other in a key Champions League showdown on Tuesday, the craving for winning another big cup at 58 hasn’t abated.
‘That is my challenge,’ he said. ‘I still have around 10 years as a manager, we have a good staff, up to date with the latest technology, with experience and a winning mentality to help me every day, and also the passion and desire to do it.’
Right now, though, Benitez is caught between a rock and a hard place. He remains emotionally committed to Newcastle but knows that under owner Mike Ashley there will not be the investment necessary to challenge for trophies.
With his contract ending this summer, another takeover mooted by Ashley last week, and the prospect of a frugal January transfer window, survival looks currently like the equivalent of silverware.
Sometimes it must feel as though 2005 belongs to a different century, a time before Abu Dhabi and Qatar had set their sights on the game, an era in which Pep Guardiola was just another ex-player looking for a job and Jurgen Klopp a Bundesliga coach with Mainz.
What Liverpool achieved in Istanbul, riding their luck en route to the trophy, or what Valencia achieved under Benitez by winning La Liga in 2002 and 2004, seems nigh on impossible now.
However, Benitez demurs. It might be harder than ever, but he feels it can still be done. ‘You have to do everything right on and off the pitch,’ he says. ‘It’s a question of methodology, organisation, resources and enthusiasm to improve things.
The former Liverpool boss reflected on how football has changed since his greatest triumph
You can build a successful team by buying the best players around or you can do it by improving the best players you have. Success is not just about titles: it is also about achieving your targets, [doing] the best you can.’
Asked what has changed since 2005, he adds: ‘In terms of the game, not too much. In terms of the business around it, a lot has. It is more difficult to do things in the old way. You have to be quick if you want to sign players but also you have to be ready to pay big prices or someone else will sign your target.’
Tactically it seems the world has changed too. Back then, Benitez and Jose Mourinho were the brightest and best coaches around, which sparked years of intense rivalry.
£90m KOULIBALY WOULD THRIVE IN ENGLAND
Rafa Benitez has backed his former Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly to succeed in the Premier League, with Jose Mourinho urging Manchester United to sign him as early as this January to improve their back four.
Benitez bought Koulibaly from Genk in 2014 and also signed other mainstays of the current Napoli team such as Dries Mertens, Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon.
Napoli are expected to ask for £90million for the centre half but Benitez said: ‘Koulibaly has all the potential to do well in England. He is quick, can use both feet and is good in the air, but the strength of Napoli is the team, they have experience in Europe and confidence in themselves.
‘They are playing well in Serie A and they can play now under (Carlo) Ancelotti with different systems.’
But from 2008, Guardiola’s Barcelona transformed the game, not just in terms of attacking football but pressing the opposition and passing out from the back. In his wake came Klopp’s gegenpressing while Mauricio Pochettino’s distinctive Argentine-inspired melding of the new football also emerged.
Benitez, who struggled to interest anyone in his tactics when he arrived in 2005, seems wryly amused by it all. ‘Now everybody talks about tactics in England on the TV, in newspapers,’ he says. ‘And the internet makes things quicker.
Anyone can have a tactical opinion and stats give people the possibility to analyse the game in another way. What is clear is technically the players are much better now because they are doing things quicker and under more pressure.’
Benitez was always a coach ready to evolve. Yet he is not an evangelist, like Guardiola, committed to one interpretation of football.
‘As a manager you have to get the best from the players you have and sometimes the style is not crucial,’ he says.
‘Guardiola is doing really well with a very good team and if they keep winning, people will continue talking about them. But other teams with different styles are also winning in other countries.’
Much though he admires Guardiola’s Barca, Bayern Munich and Manchester City teams, he resists the notion that football changed decisively in 2008, when Barca began to sweep all of Europe before them with their attacking style.
The Spaniard is looking forward to watching Liverpool’s game against Napoli
‘I have seen teams play so offensive for years so it would not be fair to say that. There have been a lot of great teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Ajax, Bayern, Juventus, Inter, AC Milan. The difference now is the internet, social media, the TV, everything seems bigger and better now.’
Tuesday’s game at Anfield raises more than a little curiosity for Benitez. It has echoes of the famous Olympiacos tie en route to Istanbul: then Liverpool needed to win by two clear goals to qualify for the last 16. On Tuesday they need either a 1-0 win or by two clear goals.
‘It is similar,’ says Benitez. ‘But at that time, it was my first year in Liverpool, our squad was not as good as this one and we conceded a goal at the end of the first half, so we had to score three in the second half! This team has 90 minutes to see what happens. Liverpool have the advantage to play at home, I’m sure in an amazing atmosphere.
Benitez thinks there are echoes of Liverpool’s famous Olympiacos tie with the game
Steven Gerrard scored a famous goal against the Greek side back in December 2004
‘You expect Liverpool to start with a high tempo and try to score an early goal. Napoli, on the other hand, have a coach (Carlo Ancelotti) and players with experience to cope with that.
‘The pace of the attacking players of both teams can be the key. Salah, Mane, Firmino or Insigne, Mertens and Callejon, any of them can surprise defenders.
‘It’s a dangerous game for Liverpool. In my first season at Napoli we got 12 points in the Champions League — the first time a team with 12 didn’t go through to the last 16! I remember the faces, it was hard to take. The repercussions for both clubs are important but even if they don’t progress, Liverpool have the resources to do well economically.’