Rafa Benitez is number 35 in 90min’s Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next seven weeks. You can find Toby Cudworth’s biography of Benitez ?here.
Rafa Benitez’s managerial career has spanned over three decades, taking him to posts in Spain, Italy and England.
The Spaniard is widely regarded as one of the best managers of his generation, and his impressive trophy haul is testament to his ability as a manager – as well as on the training field as a coach.
Over that time, Benitez has worked with a number of high profile talents – evidenced by the volume of great players who fail to make his all-time greatest XI. Here, we take a look at the players who have made it – spinning you through their accomplishments in the process…
Goalkeeper & Defenders
Pepa ?Reina – Signed in the aftermath of Liverpool winning the 2005 Champions League final, it’s fair to say the weight of expectation was on Reina’s shoulders when he arrived at Anfield to replace Jerzy Dudek. He need not have worried, though, swiftly becoming a firm fan favourite at the club after he was the Reds’ penalty hero in the FA Cup final against West Ham. Rarely missed a beat under Benitez, missing just seven games in five seasons working together at Liverpool – before reuniting at Napoli.
Curro Torres – Having worked alongside Benitez on loan at Tenerife, Curro Torres was reunited with his manager when he was appointed at the Mestalla. Two La Liga crowns and a UEFA Cup success were his rewards for breaking into Los Ches’ starting lineup.
Jamie Carragher – Until Benitez’s arrival on Merseyside, Carragher had always been viewed as a versatile defender capable of operating anywhere in the back four. Alongside Sami Hyypia, though, he established himself as one of the finest centre backs in England – and lifted the Champions League with his boyhood club during the Spaniard’s first season in charge.
Roberto Ayala – When you look back and think of great Argentine centre backs, one of the first names you’ll think of will be Roberto Ayala. A leader on the field, he was fierce in the tackle and could always be relied upon to set the tone for club or country. At Valencia, Ayala had his greatest career success – winning the aforementioned pair of La Liga titles and UEFA Cup crown.
John-Arne Riise – In the modern era, full backs are well known for their attacking prowess – relied upon to set up goals, as well as chip in with the odd goal themselves. Riise, however, was slightly ahead of his time and never really fancied helping out at the back. Instead, he scored piledriving free-kicks and provided Benitez’s Liverpool with a more than capable wing back capable of whipping in dangerous delivery after dangerous delivery.
Ruben Baraja – Alongside David Albelda and Pablo Aimar, Ruben Baraja formed one of the most underrated midfield trios in recent history – as Valencia took ?La Liga by storm in the early 2000s. In Baraja, they had a midfield maestro capable of dissecting any defence with pinpoint passing ability – as well as having a keen eye for goal. Loyal until the end of his career, he made over 350 appearances for Los Ches and won five major honours.
Xabi Alonso – Signed from Real Sociedad as a relative unknown in the immediate aftermath of Benitez’s arrival at England, Alonso went on to be recognised as one of the most technically gifted midfielders of his generation. Under Benitez, Alonso flourished – scoring in the Champions League final in 2005, as well as playing a key role in their subsequent FA Cup success. On his day, was one of the best midfielders in the world – and formed one of a hell partnership with Steven Gerrard.
Steven Gerrard – With ?Liverpool’s captain poised to leave for pastures new, a new messiah was needed on Merseyside to persuade him to stay at the club. Fortunately for the Reds, and for Gerrard, Rafa arrived just in time – leading to one of the greatest Champions League stories ever told. Under Benitez, Gerrard was simply sensational – and would never again consider leaving Liverpool until his career was on the cusp of ending.
Luis Garcia – Exciting to watch, skilful on the ball and determined to get forward and score goals – one of just a few of Luis Garcia’s great qualities (one other being his wonderful hair). In three seasons on Merseyside, he chipped in with 30 goals in 122 appearances – bringing so much more to the team though in terms of application and opening up the game for his teammates. Notably scored the ‘phantom’ goal against Chelsea, sending the Reds through to that fateful game in Istanbul in 2005.
?Gonzalo Higuain – Goals, goals and more goals. That was the mission set by Benitez after both player and manager arrived in Napoli, and Higuain did not disappoint at all. 104 games and 53 goals later, the Argentine striker had taken Serie A by storm – reinforcing his reputation as one of the deadliest strikers in the game, firing Napoli back into the Champions League in the process.
Fernando Torres – Everybody in England had heard how good El Niño might be after he signed for Liverpool – but few would have anticipated just how much of an impact he would have at Anfield. Torres was electric for the Reds and strung together three fantastic seasons of sustained form, despite struggling with injury niggles. Benitez was unable to reward Torres with silverware at Liverpool, but reunited with him at ?Chelsea to win the Europa League.
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