Imagine a world where Barca, Real, and Atletico Madrid, didn’t dominate Spanish football. It’s pretty much impossible. They have been the three elite teams in Spain since 2013. In fact, you have to go back as far as the 2003/04 season to find a final league table that does not contain both Barcelona and Real Madrid in the top three.
At the turn of the century, the top tier of Spanish football was going through a change. Cruyff’s Dream Team era at Barcelona had passed. Real Madrid had replaced Fabio Capello with Vicente del Bosque. Yet, the biggest changes took place at Valencia and Deportivo.
In the city of La Coruna, Deportivo had taken Javier Irureta on as coach in 1998. Irureta led Deportivo to their only league title in the 1999/00 season. He continued to impress there until leaving in 2005 for Real Betis. However, the biggest threat to the Barca/Real duopoly arrived on the scene in 2001 and was posed by the relatively unheard of, then 40-year-old, Rafael Benitez.
About the man
When considering management, Rafa Benitez didn’t have the perceived advantage of a stellar professional playing career under his belt – turning out for Parla and Linares, mainly in the Segunda and Tercera Divisions, before having to retire at 26 due to injury. Yet, this did not deter the young Benitez. He returned to Real Madrid and joined the coaching staff at the Bernabeu when his playing days were over.
Benitez spent a short period as assistant manager at Real Madrid under Del Bosque in 1994. Real was the club where Benitez had progressed through the academy as a youth player. His first foray into management involved an unsuccessful spell at Real Valladolid during the 1995/96 season. Rafa was sacked with his team bottom of La Liga after only two wins in 23 games. The following season he tried his hand at Osasuna but, again, he was sacked after only a few months in charge. Rafa, again, returned to Real where he would continue to learn his trade as part of the backroom team.
A taste of success
A year after arriving back at Madrid, Benitez’s next adventure was about to begin. It was back to the Segunda Division for Rafa, this time with Extremadura. Sadly now dissolved, CF Extremadura had just been relegated from the Primera Division when Rafa arrived in 1997. Benitez brought Extremadura back up at the first time of asking. They finished in second place in the Segunda Division, guaranteeing automatic promotion. Rafa was still only 38 years of age.
He spent one more season at Extremadura, but unfortunately, he was unable to keep them in the top flight. They were relegated in May 1999 and Benitez left his post. Rafa decided to take a year away from management to study the game in greater detail.
Make me an island
CD Tenerife had finished 14th in Segunda Division in the 1999/00 season. This was a disappointing spell for the island club who had enjoyed some progress under legendary German coach, Jupp Heynckes, in the mid-nineties. They looked to Benitez to bring them back up, just as he had done with Extremadura. Rafa was successful, again, and again he did it at the first attempt. With a team containing the likes of Luis Garcia (before he ended up at Anfield), and a striker named Mista, Tenerife beat Atletico Madrid to the final promotion spot on goal difference (yes, Atletico were in the second division!).
That was the only season Benitez spent in charge of Tenerife. It was now the summer of 2001 and he was about to get a call that would change his life forever.
In June 2001, Hector Cuper, the Argentinian coach, was lured to Internazionale in Serie A. This move ended his two-year spell with Valencia. In his two seasons at the helm, Cuper had taken Valencia to third and fifth-placed finishes in the league and amazingly, he had brought them to two Champions League finals in succession. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had defeated them at the last hurdle, in 2000 and 2001, respectively.
Cuper had moulded a strong first eleven at the Mestalla. Names like Santiago Canizares, Jocelyn Angloma, Amedeo Carboni, Roberto Ayala, Gaizka Mendieta, Pablo Aimar, and John Carew, were turning out every week for Los Che.
When Cuper left for Italy, Valencia approached big names to take over. Javier Irureta and Luis Aragones were among two of those who turned down the position. After putting it to a vote, the club decided to take a chance on Benitez.
A match made in heaven
When Valencia came calling, Rafa knew that move had the potential to enhance his reputation ten-fold. However, he could not have been aware of how quickly he would catapult the club and his own name to the pinnacle of Spanish football.
Like in any good story – there are heroes. Benitez himself would in no way be comfortable with such a role in the public eye. But he recruited well with the signings of Marchena and Rufete, as well as Curro Torres and Mista, whom he poached from his old club, Tenerife. Those investments gave an early indicator to Valencia fans that their new manager was approaching his project with a very holistic outlook. Mista would make the lone striker spot his own but his duties were far from restricted to getting on the scoresheet. Good thing, too, as in his ten seasons in Spain’s top division, Mista managed just 48 goals in 218 games. His values, undoubtedly, lay elsewhere. He was a team player who could hold the ball up brilliantly for the attacking midfielders to arrive in support. Mista knew he was a cog in the machine. With this acceptance, it allowed the team to keep their shape at all times, in preparation for any counter-attacks from the opposition. As with all Rafa’s teams, they moved in unison – up the pitch and back.
This was, and realistically still is, Rafa’s approach to football in general. Pragmatism takes its place as priority number one. But to credit Benitez with just this trait is doing him an injustice of the highest order. Tactically, there are not many better. His successes with Valencia were precursors to the unexpected Liverpool achievement he would oversee in Istanbul some years later, with what has to be said was a very weak squad. Rafa has that rare quality in managers – getting a team to perform better as a whole than they are as individuals. Strange, then, that we read so much about Benitez’s limitations when it comes to man-management. One can only surmise that when a team does begin to execute his tactical ideologies with such precision, that it’s a clicking of their understanding of his philosophy more so than any “Brady bunch” togetherness within the camp.
Take us on
In Benitez’s first season at Valencia, Los Che were only defeated five times in the league. Rafa led his Valencia team to their first league title for over 30 years. They lost just the once at the Mestalla Stadium – a 2-1 victory for Valladolid with his old player, Luis Garcia, opening the scoring that day.
Canizares managed 17 clean sheets that season, 12 of them at home. With Pellegrino (now manager at Southampton), Marchena and Ayala to choose a centre-back pairing from, as well as Curro Torres at right-back and Carboni on the opposite flank, Valencia had a very settled back line for teams to try to break down. Ayala, in fact, was long renowned as one of the top centre-halves in Europe around this time. It was the protection afforded to that defence by Baraja and Albelda, however, that would see Valencia through many tight fixtures as the season progressed. Indeed, 14 of their 21 league victories were by just the one goal with 7 of those ending 1-0.
Aurelio and Angloma were worthy replacements when the need arose at either full-back position. With an attacking midfield of Vicente, Aimar and Rufete, interlinking with Mista up front, Valencia were able to attack and defend as the need arose.
Valencia were disqualified after their first game in the Copa del Rey due to an error in playing an ineligible player (a mistake Rafa was to make again at Real Madrid in 2015). There was no European football for Valencia that season.
They conceded only 27 goals in their 38 league games and scored just 57. Strangely, Baraja, the defensive midfielder, was the club’s top scorer with seven goals. The mighty Mista I spoke of earlier? Four goals. But he, like his teammates, was now a Spanish title winner. Deportivo La Coruna finished second, 7 points behind, with Diego Tristan bagging 21 goals and finishing as top scorer. Real Madrid were third – Morientes had scored 18. Barca came fourth with the pair of Patrick Kluivert and Javier Saviola scoring 18 and 17 league goals, respectively. Benitez had shocked the football world. This, previously unheard of, young manager was now mixing it with the big boys.
The difficult second album
The 2002/03 season brought the welcome dilemma of Champions League football for Benitez. He was working with what was, more or less, the same squad of players he had succeeded with the previous season, though with a lot fewer games.
An early exit via a penalty shootout, against Alicante, put paid to their Copa del Rey journey that season. But Valencia’s progression to the quarter-finals of the Champions League gave us further indication of how Benitez could set a team up to take on far more flamboyant opposition. They topped their group, achieving a 2-0 and 1-0 double over his future team, Liverpool. In those days there were two group stages to deal with. Again, Valencia won their group, ahead of Ajax, Arsenal and Roma. Unfortunately, Internazionale dumped Los Che out on away goals in the quarter-final.
Valencia battled well in the league but had to be content with a fifth-place finish. They had scored one goal less than the previous season and conceded eight more. Gone was the resilience they had shown to win the title, though. 12 league defeats made disappointing reading for Rafa in the summer of 2003.
Real Madrid beat Real Sociedad to the championship by two points. Real had the fantastic Ronaldo spearheading their attack with Raul just behind him. Ronaldo scored 23 league goals but was second in the top scorer chart, behind Deportivo’s Dutch striker, Roy Makaay, who managed 29 goals.
One last season
For the following season, Rafa added Mohamed Sissoko and Xisco to the midfield and Raul Albiol (now at Napoli) was promoted from the ‘B’ team. Again, almost all of the personnel from the title-winning season still remained at the Mestalla.
Valencia’s league finish in 2003 had given them a route into the UEFA Cup. Benitez’s men made their way to the final in Gothenburg, passing the likes of Bordeaux and Villarreal along the way.
In the Copa del Rey, it was the quarter-finals which proved the last stop as Real Madrid knocked Valencia out 5-1 on aggregate. Real would go on to lose the final that year to Real Zaragoza.
However, it was another league season to remember at Valencia. They managed the same miserly, defensive stats – only conceding the 27 goals – just like they had in the previous title-winning campaign. Surprisingly, though, they scored 14 more with 71 goals. This was Mista’s most prolific season of his career. He scored 24 goals in all competitions, 19 in the league.
Valencia finished five points ahead of Barcelona to claim their second, and last, Primera Division title with three games remaining. This was only Los Che’s sixth league trophy and Benitez had brought them two of those. They were defeated seven times in the league but the main difference was they were now turning draws into wins. They won 23 of their 38 games, improving on the road especially, with 11 away wins compared to the 7 when they won it in 2002.
In Gothenburg, Rafa and his team had the chance to crown their season by winning a memorable double. The Primera Division title was theirs. Now, they turned their attention to Marseille. Another solid defensive performance was capitalised on with a Vicente penalty and a fantastic Mista finish with the outside of his left foot as they ran out 2-0 winners. Rafa had done it. Valencia had won the Primera Division and the UEFA Cup in what would turn out to be his final season there.
In the northwest of England, Gerard Houllier’s reign as manager of Liverpool FC was coming to an end. Houllier had led the Reds to a memorable treble season in 2000/01, just as Rafa was earning promotion with Tenerife. But, whether due to health reasons or not, Houllier had struggled to build on that and was unable to bring Liverpool to the next level that all Reds fans wanted. It was someone else’s turn.
Benitez heeded the call of the Anfield faithful and moved to the club where he would spend the next six years of his managerial career. Rafa won a fantastic Champions League at Liverpool in 2005 and led them to FA Cup glory the following season, but he could never deliver the level of domestic success he enjoyed in the three years he spent at the Mestalla.
However, he will always be the man who broke the mould in Spanish football almost two decades ago. In doing so, Rafa brought unbridled joy to the Valencia fans – a joy they have not experienced since.