There aren’t many top managers who divide opinion like Rafael Benitez. And given his rather impressive coaching record, this fact is quite surprising.
Benitez became one of the handful managers ever to break the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spanish La Liga, when he led Valencia to title glory in 2001-02 and 2003-04. He has also tasted success in Europe with the Champions League at Liverpool, UEFA Cup with Valencia and most recently Europa League with Chelsea last season.
However, he still has plenty of doubters mostly due to his difficult spell at Inter Milan in 2010 where he failed to consolidate on the success the club had achieved in the previous season. Also, despite doing a decent job at Chelsea, he never quite managed to satisfy the club supporters with his results.
Rafa finds his next challenge in Italy, where he has taken charge at Napoli and will been keen to improve his reputation at Serie A after a forgetful short spell before. He replaces Walter Mazzari, who left to join Inter Milan. With Mazzari leading the club to a strong second place finish last season,their best performance since they won the Scudetto in 1989-90, Rafa will have a tough act to follow.
After the tenure at Chelsea, where he was never really accepted by the fans, Rafa will be keen to have a better relationship with the Napoli fans. He has begun on a good note, welcoming the fans while taking over:
“Guys, it’s time. Finally we can start the campaign. Our adventure – and yours – begins in Dimaro on July 13. Yes, because we will always be side by side. We bring our fire, our desire to fight and give our all, while you bring your love that you have always shown for these colours and this jersey. We’re all in it together. The team is highly motivated and will be determined to give not just 100 per cent straight away, but much more. The group will get stronger with new arrivals. Just as I and my staff are fired up, we all can’t wait to put on our jerseys and boots for the first training session, the first sprint, the first goal. Napoli is here. Forza Napoli.”
Benitez’s short term at Chelsea was always set to end with the previous season, and with him reconfirming his credentials as a top manager, there was set to be interest from the likes of Real Madrid and PSG. Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, also a successful film producer, was quick to move for the Spaniard and signed him.
Benitez, who has a reputation for clashing with his club owners over signings, is almost certain to have agreed to join Napoli after assurances from De Laurentiis of support to build a competitive side.
The club had always been resigned to the idea of losing their star striker and league’s top scorer in previous season, Edinson Cavani. They have had to sell Cavani to PSG for a record fee, but have quickly moved to reinvest the money to strengthen the squad.
The purchases of the Real Madrid trio of Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon and Raul Albiol will certainly add quality to the team. Higuain, at his young age and excellent scoring record, is more than capable of being an effective replacement for Cavani, and Benitez is certainly happy with his recruitment: “Higuain is extremely strong and he’s done well in a big club like Real Madrid.”
Albiol will add steel to the Napoli defence, while Callejon and Dries Mertens (signed from PSV) will bolster the attacking department. The loan signing of Pepe Reina is a shrewd move by Benitez, having worked with the Spanish goalkeeper previously at Liverpool.
Benitez is looking forward to working with key players like Marek Hamsik, Paolo Cannavaro and others, and also developing the youth system at the club.
After selling Cavani, Benitez wants to retain the core of the team, and has said he doesn’t any more players leaving the club. Colombian wing back Juan Zuniga has been a subject of interest from Inter and Juventus, but the manager is adamant that the player will stay at the club.
Napoli are likely to have a change in their playing style from a 3-5-2 system favoured by Mazzari to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1 that Rafa prefers to use. Rafa’s primary concern will be to improve the defence, which conceded 50 per cent more goals than the champions Juventus in the previous season which proved to be a major difference between a title and 2nd place finish in the league.
The next season at Italy promises to be very interesting. Juventus will be looking to repeat their title success, while AC Milan, Inter, Roma and Fiorentina have all looked to strengthen as well. Benitez would be aware that anything less than the second place finish in the league will be considered as a step backwards for the club, and is aiming high for the club, also targeting success in the Champions League and the cups.
At a press conference, he said: “If we talk about a squad, a club and the fans, then Napoli reminds me of Liverpool for the same passion it has for football. I don’t like watching the Champions League on TV, I want to be involved in those games. We’re going to work 100% to win every single game. The president wants to make this club and the squad even stronger. I’m very happy with the transfers – we’ve got some top international players, but the whole squad is going to be important if we are to win.”
Benitez surely has the pedigree to succeed at Serie A and Champions League. His tenure at Napoli provides him the chance to finally silence his doubters and re-establish his credentials as one of the top managers in the world.