Rafa returns home but is he welcome?

ROME – After Real Madrid President, Florentino Perez, wielded his managerial axe for the umpteenth time since the turn of the millennium, bringing Carlo Ancelotti’s reign at the Bernabeu to an abrupt end, few expected Rafa Benitez to be installed as the Italian’s successor. 

 However in a surprising move, Benitez has been offered a three-year contract for his “dream job,” as Real Madrid manager, 20 years after beginning his career coaching the side’s B team. One of the Spaniard’s first major challenges will be attempting to convince the Madridistas that he is suitable for the role, after a recent poll showed that just 8 percent of supporters wanted him as manager.

 By contrast, the same survey, conducted by AS newspaper, found that 44 percent of Madrid fans wanted Ancelotti, the man who brought them the coveted ‘Decima’ (10th Champions League title), to remain in charge. The Italian had a proven track record in terms of winning trophies, not only at Madrid but also after prolific spells at AC Milan and Chelsea.

 Following last season’s success in the Champions League, La Liga has become an evermore important priority for Perez and Real and the statistic of one league title in the past seven years has ultimately cost Ancelotti and several of his predecessors their jobs. However, the decision to bring in Benitez to spearhead an attack on the citadel, which is La Liga, is rather mystifying, as since the Spaniard’s league success with Valencia in the early 2000s he has metamorphosed into something of a cup specialist.

 Liverpool fans remember Benitez as the man who delivered their fifth Champions League success, following a penalty-shootout victory against AC Milan in 2005, before very nearly repeating the trick in 2007, losing out to the same opponents. However, since then, Benitez has had a rather more difficult time.

 After taking over at Inter Milan following Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning campaign the previous year, Rafa succeeded in the unenviable task of getting himself fired before Christmas and although he won the Europa League during a short spell at Chelsea, his tenure will forever be linked with hostility from the home supporters, due to his links with Liverpool.

 In Benitez’s last job before assuming control at Real Madrid, he led Napoli to a Coppa Italia victory in his first season in charge, but after having failed to secure Champions League football for next year, it is likely that he would have been given his marching orders had Mr Perez and Madrid not come calling.

 As a result, there are more than a few questions which must be answered by the Spaniard in the coming months, however at Real Madrid, he has inherited one of the best squads in world football and an equally impressive chequebook. With the impending arrival of David de Gea from Manchester United and the possible signings of Marco Reus and Raheem Sterling on the horizon, Rafa will have a strong galactico presence in his squad for next season.

 Much of Real’s success will of course, depend on the trio of Ronaldo, Bale and James Rodriguez. In Ronaldo, Rafa has a man who has adapted his game from marauding winger to prolific centre forward, underlined by his tally of 48 league goals last season. The Colombian number 10, James, enjoyed an impressive breakthrough year following his move from Monaco, but Gareth Bale’s indifferent performances often posed a problem for Ancelotti. If Benitez can inspire the Welshman to rekindle his best form, it will provide a major boost to Madrid’s chances in La Liga.

 As with any Real Madrid manager, Benitez knows that success is mandatory but unfortunately for the Spaniard, as a result of following Carlo Ancelotti, he may not be given the leniency afforded to certain previous managers. The Madridistas are notoriously unforgiving, but if Rafa can deliver the domestic title within the next two years, he’ll be made to feel more at home.