Welcome back to Last Word On Football’s look at some of Liverpool’s most iconic figures. From players to managers, we look at who has an impact during their time at the club that no Liverpool fan will ever forget. Next up is one of the best managers to have graced the Anfield turf, Rafael Benitez.
Rafa Benitez joined Liverpool in the summer of 2004 and went on to achieve considerable success while also narrowly missing out on several honours. Despite his popularity, the Spaniard left Liverpool in 2010 following a poor season and numerous fights with ownership. While at Anfield, Benitez won one FA Cup, one Community Shield, one UEFA Super Cup and one UEFA Champions League – which has gone down in history as one of the club’s greatest ever triumphs.
Icons of Liverpool: Rafael Benitez
Benitez joined Liverpool in 2004 after a trophy-laden spell with the Spanish club Valencia where he led them to two La Liga crowns and one UEFA Cup. He seemed like the perfect man to revitalise a Liverpool side who had become stagnant under former manager Gerard Houllier.
Benitez’s first task was gargantuan – he had to convince wantaway captain Steven Gerrard to stay at the club and reject the advances of Chelsea. While he was successful with Gerrard, the same could not be said of keeping superstar Michael Owen, who moved to Real Madrid.
From there, Benitez got to work in the transfer market and the club was immediately shaped in his image with the arrival of numerous Spanish players – most notably Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia. With their arrival, the revolution had truly begun.
So optimism among fans was certainly high going into the 2004/2005 campaign. The Reds, however, struggled in the league and were unable to make significant progress. They finished fifth.
But it was in the UEFA Champions League where they excelled. After scraping through the group stages with a dramatic win over Olympiakos, the Reds began a journey that saw them eliminate some of Europe’s best teams. Benitez’s defensive tactics were key as they got all the way to the final.
There they met AC Milan.
And the Italians superior quality told in the first half. They blew Liverpool away and had a comfortable 3-0 win heading into half-time.
But then Benitez’s tactical genius came to the fore. Liverpool made a substitution with Dietmar Hamann replacing Steve Finnan. The introduction of the German, along with a formation switch to 3-5-2, allowed the Reds to gain control of the midfield.
From there, they pulled off the greatest comeback in Champions League final history. The Reds tied the game before forcing penalties where they beat Milan.
Going into 2005/2006, it’s safe to say optimism was sky-high.
The FA Cup and Nearly More
Following Liverpool’s Champions League win, the Reds were seen as title contenders. However, they struggled away from Anfield and their quest to win a League title never materialised.
But the Reds did have another triumph in the FA Cup. This time it was down to Gerrard’s brilliance. They were losing by a single goal to West Ham heading into the last minutes of the second-half when the captain produced a 30-yard screamer that broke Hammers’ hearts.
The Reds would go on to triumph on penalties.
The following year brought seismic change to Anfield as the club welcomed new ownership. While Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillet promised to transform Liverpool, problems were on the horizon.
On the pitch, Liverpool’s positive momentum continued, as they made the Champions League final, but this time, they were beaten by Milan.
In addition, in 2007, Liverpool bought Fernando Torres for a club-record fee. The owner’s promise of investment seemed to be bearing fruit.
With Torres leading the line, they continued to dominate. The Spanish Revolution kicked into high gear as in 2008, the Reds nearly won their first Premier League crown. But they couldn’t get past a determined Manchester United team despite beating their fierce rivals 4-1 at Old Trafford.
But while things seemed to be going well, 2008/2009 was the beginning of the end.
Benitez’s Final Years
In 2009, Liverpool lost Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid. This was a crushing blow as they failed to replace the Spanish midfield genius.
In addition, Benitez and the owners became embroiled in a public war of words. The manager was complaining that he wasn’t getting backed in the transfer market. However, Hicks and Gillet simply couldn’t afford to invest as they had run up a colossal debt.
Divisions began to appear amongst the fan base with those who supported Benitez and those who didn’t. This toxic atmosphere wasn’t helped by a decline in on the pitch performances.
The Reds crashed out of the group stages of the Champions League and struggled in the league. They eventually finished seventh and Benitez’s fate was sealed when his team lost in the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League.
Benitez left at the end of 2010 by mutual consent. While many may remember him as Liverpool’s nearly man, he will always have a special place in the hearts of supporters.
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