Saturday’s loss at Roma should’ve been the final, gasping breath for Rafa Benítez. The Spaniard had kept his Napoli side in third for much of the season, but after five straight games without a win, it’d fallen to sixth, eight out of the third and final Serie A Champions League spot. Sure, Rafa’s men made it to the semifinals of the Coppa Italia, but lifting that trophy doesn’t earn a team a spot in Europe’s top competition. And putting all his chips on another Europa League victory doesn’t seem wise, particularly as Napoli’s next opponent in this year’s tournament is Germany’s red-hot Wolfsburg.
Yet that’s exactly what Rafa seems to be doing, to the utter dismay of the Napoli fans – and the complete delight of other ambitious Italian clubs. Last month, a nearly full-strength squad faced Dynamo Moscow at the San Paolo. A brace from Gonzalo Higuaín helped the hosts to a 3-1 victory, but three days later, Napoli’s B-side lost at Hellas Verona. Fair enough, you say. Rafa got his side a decent advantage in Europe. But, then, how to explain the second leg, again comprised of Napoli’s best attackers, who all went on to stumble to a draw against Atalanta?
Napoli fans could go on and on about Rafa’s inadequacies. There’s his complete and utter inability to know how to get the best of their captain, the talented Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamšík. His insistence on using the likes of midfielder Walter Gargano and defender Miguel Britos leaves many puzzled. But, perhaps more than anything, Rafa’s refusal to commit to staying in Naples – and his belief that it matters not at all to his players – angers fans the most. The manager’s ego seems to swell even as results slip. And the thing is, Rafa might be correct in assuming he can land a bigger gig than his current one. Somehow, the myth of this manager manages to live on.
When Benítez left Liverpool in the summer of 2010, he not only had 6 million pounds in his pocket but landed a cushy job at a club that had just claimed the right to call itself the Best In The World. When he left Inter a mere six months later, Serie A’s defending champion was 13 points off the pace. Yet rumors still swirled about his next appointment. Would it be Juventus? Might it even be Real Madrid? Or could he even return to Anfield, where the gates had been adorned with signs reading “Rafa come home” and “Rafa is Scouse.”
Instead, Benítez took some time away. Got to know himself. Learned how to execute a perfect downward-facing dog, discovered where to eat the best cacio e pepe and found love in Bali. Then he went back to England, where he was lovingly welcomed into Chelsea’s warm bosom. After subsequently watching their side fail to progress out of the Champions League group stage, lose to the bottom team in the Premier League, and make a big deal out of winning the Europa League, those Blues fans simply adored Rafa.
At least, that’s how the story’s told. “Benitez waves goodbye to Chelsea with reputation enhanced” the headlines shouted. Two years earlier, the stories had read, “Rafael Benitez reborn with Inter Milan in Serie A.” In reality, Nerazzurri fans continue to disparage Rafa as the man who wrecked their club, and Chelsea supporters cackle with glee when he stumbles. It’s been a decade, now, since Rafa won the Champions League with Liverpool, longer since one of his sides claimed a league title. Yet, somehow, the cult of Rafa lives on.
There’s no denying Benítez’s early successes, although perhaps even those have been overblown. At Valencia, he inherited a squad that had reached two successive Champions League finals, although it’d finished fifth the season before Rafa took over. In his first season in charge, Valencia took the title, but in the next, it was right back down to fifth. The 2003-04 season brought another title, but also a dispute with the club’s director of football. Rafa resigned.
But it’s down to Liverpool that Rafa’s reputation endures. Obviously there are reasonable individuals able to look at his time at Merseyside and see his weaknesses. Benítez is a bit of a control freak and unable to endure much criticism, which means he often burns bridges with clubs, fracturing relationships with officials before he goes. Some of the same problems that cropped up at Liverpool were still present when he moved on to Chelsea, and in fact are evident today at Napoli: a rotation policy that often feels unnecessary; expensive buys, yet a lack of cover; and the inability to keep his players motivated. Oh, and an arrogance that’s starting to look misplaced.
But Rafa continues to perpetuate his own myth. Less than two weeks ago, Benítez responded to the accusation of being a “Cup Coach” by harkening back to 2005, that magical year when Liverpool lifted the Champions League trophy in Istanbul. Rafa behaved as though a decade hadn’t passed, telling the media what he’d said in the dressing room on that fateful night. You can almost imagine a dreamlike mist filling the pressroom, carrying with it reminders of that Turkish glory.
That Champions League trophy still carries weight, and its presence is big enough to blot out the fact Rafa hasn’t won a league title since leaving Spain. But the fact remains that Rafa’s weaknesses are outweighing his strengths, and that’s becoming more and more obvious with every game at Napoli plays.
Despite the recent rumors linking him with big name clubs – the Manchester Citys, the Paris Saint-Germains – it feels as though Rafa’s story is unravelling. Unless he weaves a tale of redemption with Napoli, leading them to the podium in Warsaw, it’s hard to see him landing a gig with an elite club. The memories, finally, are starting to tarnish.
The problem is, Rafa still believes in his own myth. Rafa feels he deserves a better offer than this Italian side that can’t even qualify for the Champions League. What he’s likely to get, however, is a phone call from a lower-mid-table club in England, one for whom the nostalgia for what Benítez can do still hasn’t worn off.