By Mark Robinson
After weeks of speculation Liverpool Chief Executive Rick Parry this afternoon finally unveiled former Tenerife and Valencia coach Rafael Benitez as the club’s new manager at a press conference at Anfield.
The 44 year-old Spaniard replaces Frenchman Gerard Houllier at the Merseyside club. Houllier left the club by mutual consent last month after a six year stint in charge of Liverpool.
Benitez will be the latest man entrusted with restoring the club to their former glories. Liverpool, winners of more domestic and European trophies than any other English club, have waited 14 years since their last league title.
Despite success in domestic and European cup competitions, Houllier ultimately lost his job after failing to deliver the Premiership title. Despite clinching fourth place and a Champions League spot at the end of last season, Liverpool finished a 30 points behind unbeaten champions Arsenal.
As well as closing the gap on Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, one of Benitez’s other immediate and important tasks will be to secure the Anfield futures of England internationals Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. Gerrard, made skipper at Anfield by Houllier in October 2003, has been linked with a move away from the club in recent weeks, while Owen has only 12 months left on his contract at Anfield and appears reluctant to commit his future to the club. He has, however, allegedly approved Benitez’s appointment.
Benitez began his coaching career as an assistant coach at little known Castilla, before moving to Real Madrid in 1989. In six years at the Santiago Bernabeu he coached the youth and B teams before acting as assistant to former Real coach Vicente Del Bosque.
His first managerial role came at Real Valladolid in 1995, and from there he moved to second division side Osasuna, former club of Liverpool and England fitness coach Sammy Lee.
His first real success came with Extremadura where, after taking over in 1997, he led them to the Spanish second division title. Since Benitez joined Extremadura each of his teams has finished top of their respective leagues in his first year in charge.
A move to Tenerife in 2000 brought a further Second Division title before he got his first real shot at the big time, taking over at Valencia when Hector Cuper moved to Internazionale in 2001.
In his first season at the Mestalla, Benitez delivered Valencia’s first Primera Liga title for 30 years, ending the dominance of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna. Such an achievement will be seen by Liverpool fans and the board as a potential omen, as they seek to end Arsenal and Manchester United’s stranglehold on the Premiership title.
Last season Benitez achieved the even more remarkable feat of League and European double, as Valencia fought off competition from Real Madrid and Barcelona to win the title again before defeating Marseille (conquerors of Liverpool earlier in the competition) in the UEFA Cup Final last month. It established Benitez as Valencia’s most successful manager in their 85 year history, despite just three seasons at the club.
A fluent English speaker after two sabbaticals in England studying English football at Manchester United and Arsenal, Benitez is seen as a steely manager with a sharp footballing brain. After inheriting a top class squad full of potential from Cuper, he moulded them into a consistent unit capable of free flowing attacking football – something that was an obvious attraction to the Liverpool board after the somewhat stoic performances of the squad under Houllier.
His appointment precedes the arrival at Liverpool of 22 year-old Auxerre and France striker Djibril Cisse, who will join the club in a £14 million deal on July 1st.
Liverpool Chief Executive Rick Parry said that Benitez was their first choice for the position because of his desire to join the club.
“Benitez clearly wanted to come to Liverpool and that shone through in every conversation we had. He is young, enthusiastic and hungry for success.”
The Spaniard was clearly delighted at his appointment and referred to the club as one of the world football’s biggest.
“It is like a dream to be here,” he enthused.
“I know the history of Liverpool. It is big, it is wonderful.”
“I am very, very proud to be joining one of the most important clubs in the world in one of the biggest leagues in the world – and I want to win.”
“I am young, I want to win a lot of matches and I want to win them the right way. I want the supporters to be proud of the team, of the players, of the manager and the club.”