There will be cynicism, because there always is, for the proposal that Rafael Benitez would be a good man for Chelsea. But there is a chance that owner Roman Abramovich may have finally found his man.
A book Benitez has written, Champions League Dreams, gives a sense of the man and for something which deconstructs that rather facile notion that he is a big spender and obsessive to the point of irritation about small details.
Take the front fly-leaf for starters – because that reminds us that the Liverpool team which overcame AC Milan in the Istanbul Champions League final seven years ago included Djimi Traore, Milan Baros and Harry Kewell to Champions League glory. The years dim the memory of quite what an incredible accomplishment that was.
And since it is Juventus who have finally done for Roberto di Matteo, consider Benitez’s account of how he took his Liverpool team – as much in transition then as Chelsea are now – to face a stronger side in the Stadio delle Alpi than the one Antonio Conte fielded on Tuesday, and saw them come through.
Di Matteo’s decision to drop Fernando Torres was taken at 48 hours’ notice at best. Contrast the way that Benitez placed Xabi Alonso, who was less than fully fit but required in Steven Gerrard’s absence, on a specialist training regime for days ahead of the Turin match, preparing him for his role in 3-5-1-1 system which was built around him. And how, instead of the team lining up like that, they played the first two minutes in Turin as the 4-2-3-1 which manager Fabio Capello would have been expecting, before morphing to the three-man defence.
“It is a little trick that managers sometimes use,” Benitez says in the book. Capello didn’t appear to notice. He certainly did not respond.
“The management of 180 minutes, the tactical preparation needed to overcome opponents expected to beat us,” is how Benitez described his early feats in Europe – and though the words which dominate the new book are ‘narrow,’ ‘tight’ and ‘compact’, there is a vision as well as a pragmatism about his football.
The Spaniard’s own great hero is Arrigo Sacchi, whose coaching style set aside the Italian defensive style, and what Benitez seeks to build out of the narrow base of his sides is a relentless, sometimes ruthless, energy. It’s not a prettified type of football – not Barcelona’s death by a thousand cuts – but certainly death by a rapier blow, at times. Witness the night Real Madrid were ripped to shreds, 4-0, at Anfield in March 2008. Istanbul aside, that was the high tide mark of his Liverpool years.
What everyone wants to know is whether can he restore Fernando Torres – and it certainly says a lot that the two are in touch.
Torres has his store of stories about the Benitez tactical obsessions which close off much chat about family and the weather, but this is his judgment of the man in his biography El Nino. “He is always pushing the players because it is the best way to improve, and you can say to yourself he wants to improve me or he wants to kill me, but I can tell you, he does want the best for every single player.”
History seems also to have airbrushed out the fact that Benitez, just like Andre Villas-Boas, imbued a side that seemed to have no right to European silverware, Valencia, with the ability to win a Uefa Cup and a domestic title. Perhaps it is the anti-intellectual strain in British football which explains why Benitez’s forensic nature is still used to beat him with.
“I would need to read more of Freud before I could understand all that went on in his head,” Sir Alex Ferguson once said of him. The next day, Benitez won 4-1 at Old Trafford, with Torres operating at heights he has arguably never scaled since. “I read about Freud when I was at school and university,” Benitez replied.