Why Benítez could yet end up as manager of the year

Manchester United v Chelsea - FA Cup Sixth Round

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In the wake of guiding Chelsea past Manchester United and into the FA Cup semi-finals, Rafael Benítez was asked whether he’d like a little recognition for his efforts. “I don’t need credit,” came the deadpan reply. “The players and staff were happy and the fans were pleased. I’m quite happy with that.” Benítez has his faults, like the rest of humanity, but nobody can accuse him of worrying unduly about what others think of him.

You do wonder whether it would annoy a more neurotic individual, though. With the exception of certain pockets of Merseyside, Benítez is strangely underappreciated in [England] , and a flat-out figure of ridicule to many. This nationwide state of affairs – the seethers of Stamford Bridge have their own specific beefs from spats in the Champions League – can be traced to that infamous ‘facts’ rant of 2009. Before it, Benítez enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a tactical guru. But ever since taking on Fergie and coming off second best – which hardly makes the man unique – he’s been painted as something of a bumbling oaf.

This consensus is absurd, nothing short of scandalous. He turned perennial bridesmaids Valencia into two-time La Liga winners, the only club to break the Real-Barca hegemony in the past dozen seasons; he won the Spanish club’s first European trophy for nearly 25 years; he lifted Liverpool’s fifth European Cup with a motley crew of Gérard Houllier cast-offs; his Reds won the greatest FA Cup final of modern times; he took them to a second Champions League final and then led them in their most serious tilt at the title since the days when the best team in the land could contain players such as Glenn Hysen, David Burrows and Barry Venison.

Benítez will never match the feats of the unique Sir Alex Ferguson, nor is he in the same league as those who, one day, might nudge Fergie’s achievements – José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. Yet consider this: should he lead Chelsea to the Europa League this season, he’ll become only the third man in history to win European trophies at three different clubs, alongside Giovanni Trapattoni (yes, youth of Ireland, the old boy used to know what he was doing) and Udo Lattek. He’s a top-drawer act.

And it’s not beyond the realms of outrageous fantasy that Benítez could prove this yet again over the next six weeks. Should he land an FA Cup and European double, he’ll be the first manager to do so since… well, OK, Roberto Di Matteo last season. But while he’d be certain to come second best in that particular popularity contest, a trophy or two would nevertheless be quite a return from this almost impossible situation – to the point where he’d surely be this season’s most deserving recipient of the manager of the year award.

After all, none of the other big managerial beasts have totally nailed it: Fergie might have snaffled another title, but he wanted the European Cup above all else and couldn’t mount a serious challenge; Roberto Mancini has been all over the shop at Manchester City, ditto Arsène Wenger at the Emirates; the jury’s still out on André Villas-Boas, with Tottenham’s progress as a team distorted by the superhuman efforts of Gareth Bale; David Moyes still hasn’t won anything at Everton and probably never will; Brendan Rodgers spent half the season starring in what appeared to be a sitcom. Even the hipster’s choice, Michael Laudrup, has effectively packed his players off to the beach three months early. It’s not been a 10-out-of-10 showing from any of them.

Benítez stands tantalisingly close to a singularly strange kind of success, seven games from unheralded glory. But even if he fails, and the man never wins another trophy again, here’s something else to consider: he’ll forever be a two-club Euro winner, part of an exclusive set that also includes Ottmar Hitzfeld, Ernst Happel, Bobby Robson, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Helenio Herrera, José Villalonga, Johan Cruyff, Sir Alex Ferguson – and José Mourinho. One of the special ones already, then. Even if few want to give him any credit for it.

Read the entire piece by Scott Murray at Life’s a Pitch. Do you think Benitez is underrated? Will he guide Chelsea to an unexpected Double this year? Share your thoughts with us.

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