He’s managed some of Europe’s top clubs, won the Champions League, claimed La Liga twice and once got sacked for losing just three games.
From a 13-year-old who used to record details of his youth team matches to establishing himself as a top manager via the sack at Real Valladolid, Rafael Benitez has enjoyed many highs and lows.
In an interview with Guillem Balague for the Football Daily podcast, the 59-year-old Spaniard discusses the games that have shaped him during a managerial career stretching more than 20 years.
‘Sacked after 23 games’
24 January 1996: Real Valladolid 2-5 Valencia, La Liga, Estadio Jose Zorrilla
The scenario: After 15 league matches without a win, a 35-year-old Benitez is under pressure in his first job as a manager in La Liga. Valladolid had been relegated the previous season, but just two weeks before the start of the 1995-96 season, are informed they will be staying in Spain’s top flight after Sevilla and Celta Vigo are punished over finances.
By the time Valencia visit on 24 January, Valladolid have two wins and 14 points from 22 games.
A heavy home defeat by a team that would go on to finish runners-up to champions Atletico Madrid proves the final straw – and Benitez, appointed in the summer of 1995, is sacked.
Benitez: “We didn’t find out we’d be playing in La Liga until 15 August – the league started on 2 September.
“I was complaining about the level of the signings in the end because we did everything in a hurry.
“I remember before the Valencia game our kit man said ‘listen boss, everything is fine. I’ve put some garlic behind the [Valencia] goal to bring bad luck to goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta’.
“He got injured during the warm-up, but they played Jorge Bartual instead and he made three or four saves and was man of the match.
“I was expecting it [the sack]. When you are promised two contract extensions and they don’t come back, something is wrong.”
‘People were crying in the street’
15 December 2001: Espanyol 2-3 Valencia, La Liga, Estadi Olimpic de Montjuic
The scenario: Benitez’s next job at Osasuna is also short lived but, after masterminding promotions to La Liga for Extremadura and Tenerife in 1998 and 2001 respectively, he is appointed by Valencia.
He would go on to lead Valencia to the title in 2002 and 2004, as well as the Uefa Cup in 2004, yet he almost comes unstuck a few months before his first La Liga triumph.
After five wins in 16 games, Valencia find themselves 2-0 down at Espanyol and rumours are circulating Benitez will be sacked after the game.
Against the ropes, he switches his formation to play with three attackers – Miguel Mista, Salva and Adrian Ilie – and Valencia win 3-2.
The tide is turned and Valencia go on to be crowned champions of Spain for the first time in 31 years.
Benitez: “We were seven points behind Real Madrid in January but I told the players we could win the league. We were very solid and the players were mentally strong.
“I remember the players all had lunch together and afterwards they stayed half an hour talking about football.
“You had the South Americans on one table and the Spanish on another table. They were not with their wives or PlayStation – they were just talking about football.
“We won the league scoring just 51 goals.
“I remember the parade and people crying in the streets. After this I told my wife I would win the Champions League.”
Locked out of after-match party
25 May 2005: AC Milan 3-3 Liverpool (aet – Liverpool win 3-2 on penalties), Champions League final, Istanbul
The scenario: Liverpool overcome AC Milan in a penalty shootout to win the Champions League after trailing 3-0 at half-time.
Paolo Maldini gives Milan a first-minute lead while Hernan Crespo’s double makes it 3-0. Steven Gerrard launches the comeback, with Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso making it 3-3.
Jerzy Dudek then saves from Andrea Pirlo and Andriy Shevchenko in the shootout as Liverpool claim an unlikely win.
Benitez: “People say we were lucky. Lucky? No, we beat the likes of Chelsea, Juventus, Olympiakos and Bayer Leverkusen to get to the final.
“I was taking notes when we conceded the third goal. I remember the players with their heads down and I said at half time ‘come on, if we score one goal we will be back in the game’.
“Afterwards we had a party. I don’t drink – it’s just party, pictures, fans and friends.
“A friend of mine wanted to get into the party and he couldn’t so they called me and I had to go outside. I was outside for one minute and when I tried to get back inside, the security didn’t let me in.
“The parade was the next day and the players were at the top of the double-decker bus and it was going quite fast. You could see the trees and the branches and the players were like ‘be careful’. It was quite dangerous.”
‘Sacked days after winning Club World Cup’
18 December 2010: Inter Milan 3-0 TP Mazembe, Club World Cup final, Abu Dhabi
The scenario: Benitez did not know it at the time but Inter Milan’s defeat of Democratic Republic of Congo side TP Mazembe to win the Fifa Club World Cup was to be his final game in charge of the Italian side.
After six months in the role, Inter, who had won a Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia treble the previous season under Jose Mourinho, were well off the pace in the league.
With his job in peril and buoyed by the Club World Cup victory, Benitez tells the European champions to back him with new signings or consider whether they want to keep him as coach.
On 23 December 2010, just days after the Club World Cup final, the Spaniard is dismissed.
Benitez: “When I went to Inter they promised me signings, but they didn’t sign anyone, and if you don’t do that then you have a crisis.
“We had 15 players over the age of 30 – players aged 36, 37 and 38.
“This team had too many injuries.
“Some players didn’t want to realise they had to leave a space for someone like Philippe Coutinho, who was 18 at the time.
“A player who had won a treble couldn’t understand why Coutinho could play ahead of them.”
‘Wrong perception of my time at Chelsea’
15 May 2013: Benfica 1-2 Chelsea, Europa League final, Amsterdam
The scenario: Ever since their team was on the receiving end of a Champions League semi-final “ghost goal” against Liverpool in 2005, Benitez has been unpopular among Chelsea fans.
So their low-key reaction when Roman Abramovich decided to appoint him as interim manager following the dismissal of Roberto di Matteo in November 2012 was predictable.
Nevertheless, Benitez leads the Blues to the Europa League final and goals from Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic propelled Chelsea to victory against Benfica.
But the damage is done.
During an interview after an FA Cup win at Middlesbrough two months earlier, Benitez reveals he will be leaving at the end of the season.
Benitez: “Some fans or maybe some players were not happy but the majority of them were fine so my memories of Chelsea are quite positive.
“There’s a lot of fans but I always say the same. At the beginning there were not too many [negative comments], then there were more of them but the majority of them were fine.
“The crucial game was against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup. We beat them 2-0 away and then I gave an interview and said ‘I’m a professional, I will do my job, I will try to do the best for Chelsea and you don’t need to complain about me because I will leave at the end of the season’.
“I remember waiting for my family at a train station and someone approached me and said ‘I’m a Chelsea fan, thank you very much for what you did for us, you did well’. I have had this conversation so many times that I’m still asked ‘bad memories?’. No, good memories.
“People have a wrong perception of my time at Chelsea. I still have a lot of friends there.
“At the end of the season we went to America and played two friendly games against Manchester City, and the chairman and the chief executive gave me a dinner in New York.”
‘People tried to create a mess between Ronaldo and myself’
8 December 2015: Real Madrid 8-0 Malmo, Champions League group game, Bernabeu Stadium
The scenario: Six months after leaving Napoli to return to take charge of Real Madrid, Benitez equals the biggest victory in the history of the Champions League group stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo scores four times in 19 minutes either side of half-time as the hosts demolish Malmo.
The result equals Liverpool’s 8-0 win against Besiktas in 2007 – when Benitez was in charge. Not bad for a coach considered conservative.
However, within a month of the Malmo win, and despite only losing three games, Benitez is sacked by the club.
Benitez: “We were doing things right, but they decided to change.
“People were trying to create a mess at the beginning but I talked with Cristiano every day. He’s a professional, he takes care of himself, and he’s always focused on what he wants to do.
“I had the offer three times previously [to manage Real]. It was emotional to manage them because I had been at the club from the age of 13 to the age of 35.
“I know exactly what was wrong but I cannot say.”
‘Newcastle fans convinced me to stay’
15 May 2016: Newcastle United 5-1 Tottenham, Premier League, St James’ Park
The scenario: With Newcastle’s relegation to the Championship confirmed and uncertainty surrounding Benitez, who only took over two months earlier, the Magpies welcome a Tottenham team looking to finish runners-up to champions Leicester City on the final day of the season.
Despite Aleksandar Mitrovic’s red card, the hosts produce an extraordinary performance – and Spurs have to settle for third in the table.
Newcastle fans spend the entire game chanting Benitez’s name and 10 days later the club announce he has signed a new three-year contract.
Benitez: “The problem we had when we arrived was we just didn’t have time. We thought massive club, massive stadium, fans behind the team. Everything was right but we had 13 injuries when we first arrived.
“That [the fans] was another thing that made you think ‘this is a massive club and you can do something with these fans behind you’.
“That was a key factor in my decision [to stay]. I was talking with Mike Ashley after the game and he was asking me ‘what do you want?’ We were talking about what we thought was needed to win promotion back to the Premier League.
“We didn’t realise how difficult it would be in the Championship.
“But our team was solid, we were strong in defence and we were fine in attack. That’s the key – if you want to win trophies you have to find the balance.
“We finished 10th in the Premier League last season and now we are talking and waiting to see what we can do in the future.”