‘Roman Abramovich has spent some money… Chelsea must deliver!’: Rafa Benitez opens up on his rivalry with Jose Mourinho, life in China and returning to England
- Rafa Benitez says that Chelsea have to deliver following their spending spree
- Benitez added that his rivalry with Jose Mourinho was ‘good for the game’
- The Spaniard, currently managing Dalian, wants to return to England eventually
One thing is perfectly clear, even from the other side of the world. ‘Roman Abramovich is back,’ says Rafa Benitez, a trace of mischief in his voice hinting at a twinkle in his eye. ‘Chelsea must deliver.’
Benitez knows how it feels to compete against the power of the Abramovich fortune. He faced them 26 times in six years as Liverpool boss, sparring with Jose Mourinho, inspiring a modern rivalry still alive as the teams prepare to collide again on Sunday.
Six months at Stamford Bridge gives him an understanding of how Chelsea works, too, and he remains well connected to the Premier League since his move to take charge of Dalian Pro in the Chinese Super League.
Rafa Benitez believes that Chelsea have to deliver after their spending in this transfer window
Chelsea manager Roman Abramovich has sanctioned the signings of a host of star players
There is now a significant amount of pressure on Chelsea boss Frank Lampard to succeed
‘The rivalry with the Chelsea of Mourinho was good for the game,’ said Benitez. ‘There was passion and emotion. Rivalry in football is a great thing as long as it is well respected and no-one loses control or breaks the limits.
‘For us to compete with them, with all the money they were spending, says a lot about our progress at the time. Every game was a challenge to think a step or two ahead — “if they do this, we will do that and if we do that maybe they will do this”.
‘There was always something. We adjusted our zonal marking to stop John Terry at corners, man to man. Frank Lampard liked to play one-touch from the middle of the pitch for Didier Drogba who was quicker than Sami Hyypia and we tried to make sure Sami recognised the situation.
Benitez emphasised that his high-profile rivalry with Jose Mourinho was good for football
‘Before one game, I thought maybe they had a weakness at right back and then they moved Michael Essien to right back and he was so good they didn’t have a weak point. They were strong, good on the ball, aggressive and well organised. You can see in the Premier League how well they did.
‘We talk about Formula One. In the league, if they have a better car, they will go past you on the straight and that’s it. In the Champions League, it is a bendy circuit and there are chances to show your ability as a driver. We were able to compete and I was proud of my team.’
At Liverpool, Benitez won the Champions League and the FA Cup. At Chelsea, he arrived in mid-season to win the Europa League and finish third in the Premier League, despite hostility from supporters unable to overlook his Anfield connection.
‘The majority realised what we did,’ said Benitez. ‘People remember the fans against us but we didn’t have too many problems. The staff and the majority of the players were nice.
Benitez spoke fondly of his time at Chelsea despite receiving criticism from some supporters
‘I would go into Waitrose and people would stop me to talk and they appreciated what we were doing.’
Benitez also enjoyed a good rapport with the board and owner Abramovich, who invited him to dinner in New York at the end of the season to acknowledge his work.
‘That means we delivered. They could see we were professionals, working hard and doing things right. I didn’t have any regrets.
‘The problem at this time was that they wanted to win, they needed to win, they were desperate to win. As soon as something was wrong they were changing the manager and changing policy.
‘But the reality is that they were improving the system, Michael Emenalo was doing a good job as director of football, their academy was very good, always winning the FA Youth Cup. Now you can see Abramovich is back with his support and they have signed a lot of good players and will be very competitive.
‘This year, Chelsea and Manchester United must deliver. They have spent some money in recent years.’
Benitez is managing Dalian Professional in China, and spoke about the impact of the pandemic
It is almost midnight in Dalian, part of the day Benitez often sets aside for catching up with family and friends in Europe since he has been in China — which moves out of lockdown with strict quarantines and plentiful testing.
‘When we arrived back in Dalian, a city of around seven million, there were three or four cases, they said, and they did 190,000 tests,’ said Benitez. ‘When it went up to about 20 cases they did four million tests in just a few days.’
Dalian Pro were at a pre-season training camp in Xiamen, southern China, when the virus broke out and spent more than a month in Spain before returning to their home city, only 180 miles from the border with North Korea.
‘Everyone wears a mask and gloves. People keep a distance. There is antibacterial gel everywhere you go.
‘In restaurants, they take your temperature and give you a bag to put your mask inside. In the taxis, they take a temperature. In the hotel, they take your temperature and clean the lifts every hour.
‘We have an app to travel around Dalian and there is another app for Beijing. If you were close to someone with the virus it is orange, if not, it is green. If you have the virus it is red.’
The start of the season was delayed by five months and then reformatted with the teams split arbitrarily into two groups of eight, with the top four of each group moving on to fight for the title and the bottom four then fighting for survival.
Games started in July and players and coaching staff have been together for two months inside a hotel. They are regularly tested. Benitez had his 19th test ahead of Friday’s Chinese FA Cup tie against Shandong Luneng.
Dalian is famed as China’s football city although it has not boasted a successful team for many years.
Benitez was appointed on a lucrative contract last year with a brief to build the foundations for a future when that status can be restored.
Thanks to the backing of the multinational property developers Wanda, Dalian Pro has a new and impressive £250million training complex. ‘They want us to leave a legacy,’ said Benitez.
Everything he wanted to see Newcastle invest in is there for him in China. The irony is not lost on him. Unfortunately, the constraints of quotas and salary caps make it difficult to make up lost ground at first-team level and compete with the power of Guangzhou Evergrande, champions for eight of the last nine years, and Shanghai SIPG, where Oscar is reputed to earn £20m a year.
‘We have always improved players,’ said Benitez. ‘When we started to win with Valencia, the president said, “We give you a piece of meat and you create a player”. It was a problem for me. He knew I could improve players and was not spending big money.
‘I like to coach and improve, don’t forget I was a PE teacher. But we didn’t spend big, not even at Real Madrid. Maybe the only time was two years at Napoli when we transformed the team and made them international, as the president wanted.
‘At Newcastle we spent more than the others when we won the Championship and the rest of the teams — Liverpool, Inter, Real Madrid — whatever you want to say, were not the biggest spenders and we were competing at the top.’
Benitez, who was last in England with Newcastle, is willing to return to the Premier League
Benitez finished second in the Premier League with Liverpool in 2009 and was delighted to see them finally end the 30-year wait to be English champions again.
‘They have done really well and they have the possibility to stay at the top. I am happy for that.’
Yet he has not abandoned the idea of one day returning to England and competing again for the biggest prizes.
At 60, a birthday celebrated in lockdown, he wants to go on coaching for another 10 years, despite the advice of his wife Montse.
‘My wife is telling me to relax a bit,’ he said. ‘But I like to be on the pitch, preparing my tactics, competing for trophies. Of course I can see myself back in the Premier League and closer to my family. When? I don’t know.
‘In the meantime, I will go on watching the Premier League games with my staff. We have arguments depending on the team we support.
‘The pandemic has changed a lot but it has not changed our passion for the game.’
Liverpool fans often talk to Benitez about the club’s Champions League success in 2005
It is a decade since he left Anfield and wherever he goes Benitez will find supporters who want to talk about Istanbul.
‘They tell me it was the best Champions League final ever,’ he said, smiling. ‘I have seen many times the videos of fans in the stands, filming on their phones.
‘I wasn’t able to feel those emotions at that time but you watch these videos and you see what it means.
‘People said we were lucky but we beat Juventus and Chelsea, amazing teams. We were not lucky.’
Chelsea fans, of course, will never let him forget the goal scored by Luis Garcia in the second leg of the semi-final at Anfield. The game’s decisive strike — branded a ‘ghost goal’ by Mourinho — arguably lit the fuse on the rivalry.
Chelsea supporters will never let Benitez forget the ‘ghost goal’ scored by Luis Garcia for Liverpool in 2005
‘They always say, “Oh yes, it wasn’t a goal” and I will say, “OK then, a red card for Petr Cech because it was a foul on Milan Baros”.
‘They were so strong and the way we were defending, with that last shot past the post from Eidur Gudjohnsen the emotions were so high, the atmosphere was massive and it is something I will remember for ever.
‘I do not live in the past but remember all these games and I cannot stop people stopping me to say, “Oh, Istanbul, this or that”. I’ve heard people say, “Don’t tell my wife but that was the best day of my life”. I’ve heard that so many times.’
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