Benitez will always be remembered for the dizzy heights he scaled in his first season at the club, leading Liverpool to its fifth European Cup, in astonishing circumstances. The following season saw the reds pip West Ham in a thrilling FA Cup final.
Unfortunately those early triumphs were to be the highlights of Benitez’ reign. Under the Spaniard Liverpool were well equipped for Europe and reached another Champions League final in 2007. And last term a remarkable second half of the season witnessed Rafa’s first convincing push for Premier League glory.
That unsuccessful bid told a story, however. Disappointing, negative home performances earlier in the season ultimately cost the team its first title since 1990. Only when its chances of success were almost gone did Benitez’ outfit cast off the defensive shackles and deliver confident, attacking football.
Rafa’s Liverpool sides were always organised and solid, but they frequently lacked inventiveness and conviction going forward. That memorable night in Istanbul aside, when things went badly, the manager’s cautious approach prevented the bold tactical changes needed to save a match.
How often did Benitez’ team limp to a disappointing 1-0 defeat or 0-0 draw, principally because the coach refused to change the set-up or to introduce a second striker?
Last season his decisions became increasingly erratic and bemusing. Liverpool slumped to seventh, turning out a series of limp, defensive, embarrassing displays. Off the field turmoil did not help, but the buck for on field performances has to stop with the manager.
Benitez will leave Liverpool in a demoralised and confused mess, for which he is only partially responsible. Its parasite American owners have bled the club of finance and remain at the helm, despite repeated opportunities to step aside.
The company is now for sale, there is only a depleted transfer budget currently available, and influential players are reportedly considering their futures. It is hardly an ideal situation for a new manager to inherit, nor does it lend itself to attracting the type of world class coach Liverpool needs.
Certainly Rafa has to go, but it is even more urgent that Tom Hicks and George Gillett sell the club they acquired, under false pretences, immediately. New owners, a new manager and a replenished transfer kitty are all needed to take Liverpool forward.
As for Benitez, his name will always be synonymous with Istanbul, and his commitment to the club has rarely been in doubt. He can’t survive on past glories forever though. The current side is a disgrace to the red shirt and it is time for its manager to move on.