Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez came to Liverpool Football Club in the 2004-05 with a reputation of a supreme tactician and an eye for attacking football. He had led Valencia to their first title in 31 years. Liverpool fans were hoping he could do the same for our club.

The first season Rafa took charge was a rollercoaster. In the league the Reds were inconsistent at times but in Europe, it was a whole different story. The late great Bill Skankly established Liverpool as a force in European football and Rafa made an immediate impact.

Even a disappointing fifth place finish couldn’t take away from the legendary night that took place on that summer’s night in May. After a controversial Luis Garcia goal over Chelsea (it was over the line!), Liverpool headed to Istanbul for their first European Cup final since 1985 in Heysel. AC Milan went into the game as favourites. With players like Maldini, Kaka and Shevchenko, the critics thought Liverpool would have no chance. 40 seconds into the game, Paulo Maldini scored a rare goal. This was followed by a neat goal by Hernan Crespo. Before half time, a defence splitting pass from Kaka, set Crespo off to score a third. It was a match winning goal.

At half time, thousands of Liverpool fans began singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Seeing your team outplayed and 3-0 down, the fans never gave up.

Fans
A few tactical changes from the manager and a legendary team talk, saw the players come out and stage a stunning comeback that no-one could ever predict. Liverpool scored three goals in six minutes to level the scores at 3–3. A cracking header from Steven Gerrard, a long range Vladimir Smicer strike and a Xabi Alonso goal brought the scores level. Six minutes of brilliance turned the game on its head. The scores remained the same during extra time where last ditch defending from Jamie Carragher and a point blank save from Jerzy Dudek kept Milan at bay.

Penalties saw Milan crack first as Serginho and Pirlo missed Milan’s first two penalties. Dudek having been given advice from Jamie Carragher about the 1984 antics of Bruce Grobbelaar, performed his very own antics ‘The Dudek Dance’!Shevchenko had to score but the striker’s tame penalty was saved by Dudek and secured the historic moment where Liverpool won their fifth European Cup. The club was awarded the trophy permanently. They talk of St. Etienne, Rome in 1977 but they will now talk of Istanbul 2005.

As a Liverpool fan, watching the dramatic events unfold, all I could think was how lucky I was to be a Liverpool Fan, the rest as they say is history. Many have cited Istanbul 2005 as arguably the greatest European Cup Final or even the greatest game of football ever seen. The game will forever be remembered as the greatest comeback of all time. From Smicer’s celebration that summed up the emotion of every Liverpool fan to Dudek spaghetti legs to the cramp suffering Carragher on the winners podium, this game was simply unbelievable. The phoenix had risen and Liverpool FC were back on the world map! It was a fairytale ending to Rafa’s first season in charge.

Champions of Europe Istanbul

The following season was another special one. Liverpool finished with 86 points, the highest points tally since the Premier league had started but another Cup Final beckoned and The Millennium stadium was the stage.

The Reds headed to Cardiff for a FA Cup final against West Ham. Struggling going two nil down thanks to a Carragher own goal and Dean Ashton close range strike. Djibril Cisse pulled one back for the Reds before a goal from Gerrard made the score 2-2. Paul Konchesy caught the keeper off guard to give the Hammers the lead. In the final moments of the game, Captain Marvel, Steven Gerrard pulled off a stunning long range strike forcing extra-time with Liverpool winning on penalties.

Two years after Istanbul, Liverpool reached yet another European Cup Final, the seventh in the clubs history. Beating Chelsea in the semi-finals AGAIN, the Reds set up another clash with AC Milan in Athens. Unfortunately Liverpool finished runners-up.

The 2007-08 saw the arrival of El Nino aka Fernando Torres for a record fee. With the young striker, The Reds marched to a run of 14 league matches unbeaten but saw their title hopes derailed by a series of disappointing draws. Despite being knocked out of the FA Cup early, Liverpool fans rejoiced over a sweet 4-1 drubbing over Manchester Utd at Old Trafford. It came at a time when the Reds ended the season with 10 wins from 11. An impressive finish had fans optimistic for the following season.

That optimism was short-lived as a opening day defeat to Tottenham and injuries to star players Torres and Gerrard had an effect on the club. Before Christmas, the Reds were out of the group stages of the Champions League and the league looked far out of reach.

Something did not seem right at the club. In his final season, Liverpool lost 19 games. There were disappointing defeats to Championship side Reading and the club lost out to Chelsea on the final home game of the season, which meant they lost out on a top four finish.

Rafa’s tenure began like a fairytale. The Spaniard certainly restored Liverpool’s reputation as a force in Europe but injuries and a disharmony with the American owners George Gilette and Tom Hicks had too much of an effect on the club, the players and their performances. If Rafa was able to buy the players he wanted without having the struggle to get money, things may have been different.

He is still loved by the fans and will always be. When he left the club, Rafa donated £96,000 to the Justice For 96 trust.

In Rafa We Trust.

Rafa

Honours as a manager:

Champions League Winners: 2005

Super Cup Winners: 2005

FA Cup Winners: 2006

Charity Shield Winners: 2006

Rafael Benitez Signings:

Xabi Alonso

Luis García

Peter Crouch

José Reina

Daniel Agger

Fábio Aurélio

Dirk Kuyt

Ryan Babel

Alvaro Arbeloa

Yossi Benayoun

Lucas Leiva

Javier Mascherano

Fernando Torres

Martin Škrtel

Jonjo Shelvey