Rafael Benitez has had a long career in elite football management. The Spaniard has been active since 1995, when he took up the reins at Real Valladolid, after stints with the Real Madrid B team. Spells at Osasuna, Extremadura and Tenerife followed, but it wasn’t until he came to Valencia in 2001 that Rafa tasted success.
Having led Los Che to the La Liga title in his debut season, Benitez also fired Valencia to another league title in 2003/04, along with the UEFA Cup. And then, Liverpool came calling. That night in Istanbul when Liverpool pulled off the impossible to win the Champions League, in his very first season, will go down as perhaps the best moment in his long career.
Although he spent six years at Anfield, that and an FA Cup were the only major trophies he would go on to win. Short but pretty successful stints at Inter Milan and Chelsea followed, before he took over at Napoli and helped establish them as a genuine threat to Juventus’ domination in Italy.
A sorry stint at Real Madrid was then in store for the Spaniard, who then took up the reins of a sinking ship at Newcastle United. He eventually underwent a relegation with the Magpies and then helped them to promotion immediately after. The 59-year-old did a fine job at the St. James’ Park before leaving last summer and is currently at Chinese Super League club Dalian Pro.
In a career that has lasted over two decades, Benitez has worked with some fine players along the way. But who makes it to the best XI of footballers that were coached by the bespectacled Spaniard?
GK: Santiago Canizares (Valencia)
Pepe Reina was an ever-present at Liverpool under Benitez, but it is Santiago Canizares that gets the nod here because of the role he played in Valencia’s rise to the top and a trophy-laden spell under Benitez. The Spaniard made 128 appearances during the pair’s time at Mestalla, captained a few matches among those as well, keeping 58 clean sheets along the way.
RB: Curro Torres (Valencia)
Honourable mentions for Steve Finnan who was part of the Champions League triumph at Liverpool and Alvaro Arbeloa, who played under Benitez at both Liverpool and Real Madrid. But it is another Valencia man, Curro Torres, who is picked at right-back. The pair worked together first at Tenerife, where Rafa brought him on loan, before joining hands at Valencia again.
Torres would grow into a key member of Benitez’s side at Mestalla, essaying an important role in Los Che’s two La Liga title triumphs and the UEFA Cup as well. In total, across his stints at Tenerife and Valencia, Torres featured for 143 times under Benitez.
CB: Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)
The most frequently used player by Rafa in his managerial career, it was only after the Spaniard’s arrival that Carragher grew into one of the most formidable defenders in England. The Liverpool academy man was an ever-present in the lineup, including that memorable night in Istanbul. The former England international made 326 appearances for the Reds during Benitez’s tenure at Anfield, chipping in with a couple of goals as well.
CB: Sami Hyypia (Liverpool)
Jamie Carragher’s partner in crime at Liverpool, the Finnish centre-half is a legend at Anfield and the stint under Benitez played a part in him achieving that status among the Kopites. Hyypia made over 450 appearances for the Reds, 200 of which came during Benitez’s spell at Anfield, scoring 14 goals along the way.
LB: John Arne Riise (Liverpool)
Another key member of the Liverpool backline under Benitez, the Norwegian was well-known for his attacking runs, powerful shots, dangerous crosses and some spectacular goals than defensive work. John Arne Riise made 201 appearances for the Reds under Rafa, scoring 17 goals and setting up 12 more. Benitez would get a chance to work with another top-class attacking left-back in Marcelo at Real Madrid, but the partnership lasted for hardly six months.
CM: Xabi Alonso (Liverpool)
The linchpin of the Liverpool midfield under Rafa, Xabi Alonso grew into one of the best deep-lying playmakers during his time at Anfield under the tutelage of his compatriot. The Spaniard was an unknown quantity outside of Spain but all that changed after his arrival at Liverpool.
Alonso played an integral role in the success that the Reds enjoyed under Benitez, scoring in 2005 UCL final as well as making important contributions to their FA Cup success a few years later. During the pair’s time together in England, Alonso made 210 appearances, scoring 18 goals and setting up ten more.
CM: Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Undoubtedly one of the best midfielders in the game during his prime, Gerrard played some of his finest football during the Benitez era at Anfield. It was Stevie G who was the Liverpool captain against Milan in the 2005 UCL final, who kickstarted Liverpool’s comeback on the night, scoring a crucial goal and was named Man of the Match.
Gerrard played in 292 of 350 matches Benitez was in charge at Anfield, scoring 104 goals and setting up 64 more, cementing his legacy in the history of Liverpool and football as one of the best ever.
RW: Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool)
One of the most underrated and hard-working players to have plied their trade at Anfield, Dirk Kuyt doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. Having arrived as a centre-forward, the Dutchman remodelled his game into a winger, to accommodate a certain Fernando Torres in the side and did a fine job at it.
Having signed by Benitez himself in 2006, Kuyt went on to feature 200 times under the Spaniard, bagging 51 goals and setting up 30 more, and continued to perform strongly for a few more years after Benitez had moved on from Anfield.
CAM: Juan Mata (Chelsea)
Pablo Aimar, Wesley Sneijder, Frank Lampard are few of the elite attacking midfielders that Benitez has worked with in his career. While the latter two played only a handful of matches under Rafa, Aimar’s exclusion was difficult, considering his relatively longer association with Benitez at Valencia. But it is Juan Mata who gets the nod as the No.10.
During Benitez’s short stint at Chelsea, Mata was one of the best players for the Blues. In fact, the Spaniard missed only three of the 48 matches Benitez was in charge of the West Londoners. During this stint, Mata scored 12 goals and assisted 25 more – two of which came in the finals of the UEFA Europa League which Chelsea won. Mata was named Chelsea’s Player of the Year for that season.
LW: Dries Mertens (Napoli)
While he may be playing in a more central role now, Dries Mertens was deployed on the left flank for most of Rafa’s tenure at Napoli, from where he played a key role in the Partenopei’s rise to prominence in Italy. The Belgian international played in 98 of the 112 matches Benitez managed at Napoli, producing a return of 23 goals and 24 assists, one of which came in the 2013/14 Coppa Italia final which was Rafa’s only trophy during his time at Napoli.
ST: Fernando Torres (Liverpool)
Gonzalo Higuain was a strong contender given his impact upon arrival at Napoli, but there’s no way anyone can pick a Benitez Best XI without Fernando Torres in the side. The Spaniard was brought to the English shores by Benitez in 2007 and would go onto become one of the most lethal marksmen in the Premier League at the time.
Torres enjoyed three impactful seasons at Liverpool under Benitez, scoring 72 goals in 116 games. While they did not win any trophy together at Anfield, that would change when the pair reunited at Chelsea, as Torres scored 15 goals in 44 matches, as the Blues won the Europa League in 12/13.