Rafa Benitez is in high spirits as he surveys the scene. Down to his right, a ferry is pootling across the Mersey, to his left, the three buildings that make this riverfront so instantly recognisable stand tall and proud.
This is Liverpool, his home and the city where he was once king. He is the man who arrived from Valencia in 2004, hungry to revitalise the Reds. But he is also the man who crossed the great divide in 2021.
His name was sung on Monday at the Merseyside derby, but only by Liverpool fans, who will never forget how Benitez took them to the summit of European football. Many Evertonians view his 200-day reign as 200 days too long.
‘When I left, I wanted them to stay up,’ Benitez says. ‘I wasn’t thinking, “If they are relegated, I will be happy” — no way. I have a lot of friends, they are proper Evertonians. Why would I want them to go down? The derby is incredible, a proper atmosphere.
‘The rivalry is amazing, when it is nice. Sometimes it can be a little bitter. But if it is nice, it is good for the city. Football is like that. The good thing is that there will be an interesting rest of the season for both clubs because they have to achieve what they need to.’
Former Everton manager Rafael Benitez during the Premier League match at Carrow Road, Norwich
He is not the only manager to have been swallowed up in the Farhad Moshiri era
We have met in this hotel primarily to discuss Liverpool’s last-16 Champions League tie with Real Madrid but no subject is off the table. This is the first time Benitez has given his views about what happened at Everton.
He is not the only manager to have been swallowed up in the Farhad Moshiri era but his frustration, 13 months on, remain visible. Though Benitez, who will be 63 in April, has supreme confidence he will manage again, the ramifications of his sacking are still felt.
Throughout our discussion, he regularly uses the phrase ‘right decision’ — so was it really the right decision to accept Moshiri’s offer, when there was opposition to the move within the club and resentment from the fans?
‘I will say yes, because you analyse in the context,’ Benitez replies. ‘I was not expecting they would not invest and they would not support me in the way they supported any other manager. You can name any manager and they were spending so much.
‘But the economic situation was what it is. I discovered later on, late during the summer window, we could not sign players, so we had to manage what went on. In January, I was expecting to change some things. We had to sell some players to ensure that we could balance the team.’
Lucas Digne, a player who divided opinion in the dressing room, was sold to Aston Villa to finance moves for full backs Nathan Patterson from Rangers and Vitaliy Mykolenko from Dynamo Kiev. Benitez also wanted to bring in Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff, having helped develop him at St James’ Park — the intention was to swap him for Tom Davies.
‘I don’t say that we were doing well or bad,’ Benitez continues. ‘We did an analysis. My friends, I have a lot who are Evertonians, they could see that. We were not in the relegation zone when I left. We were six points above, with two games in hand, spending £1.7million (on Demarai Gray).’
Though Benitez, who will be 63 in April, has supreme confidence he will manage again
Benitez hugs Demarai Gray after the match between Everton and Arsenal at Goodison Park in 2021
Time is not something Moshiri has given to any of his managers but the speed with which Benitez was jettisoned rankles. Many will argue the situation had become unsustainable and results had been desperate but Benitez is adamant things would have changed.
‘When you put the money spent and the points together, we were building something — starting with a team who had not been winning for years,’ Benitez argues. ‘It frustrates, especially when you explain to them the problems you could see when you’d just arrived.
‘You can see the problems with injuries, the salaries of some players and you have to deal with that. We lost players at the beginning. Players with massive salaries who, for 35-40 per cent time of the time, were injured.
‘When you analyse with your experience as a professional, you think they will understand. You think they will give you the time to fix the problems. Then when we signed a couple of young players for the future, they fired us.
‘We weren’t doing well in terms of results but we were building something. We always said the second half of the season would be better. When we left, there was one player injured, just Tom Davies.
‘They were fit, they were ready. Richarlison was injured two months, we didn’t have Dominic Calvert-Lewin or Abdoulaye Doucoure or Yerry Mina for a while.
‘These four players were the spine. After that, even with all of it, we were six points above the relegation zone with two games in hand. After it was worse, spending more money. The people, they don’t realise it was like that.’
Given how it all ended, it is easy to understand why this football obsessive wants to jump back in. He will be at St James’ Park this evening as analyst for Newcastle’s game with Liverpool. He is afforded great warmth in the North East and is thrilled the area is thriving.
He loves being in the cut and thrust of it all and has not been idle during his enforced absence, studying games, analysing players and working out when and where to relaunch a career in which he has won 13 major honours.
‘Yeah, yeah, for sure,’ he says when asked if he will work again. ‘The good thing I have is that because I have managed so many years and because I was successful, I can decide. I have had around 20 offers since I left Everton.
‘National teams, different teams in Asia, in the Emirates, in Mexico. National teams everywhere. Some teams in England, some teams in Spain. The reality is you need to find the right one, the team that will allow you to build.’
It leads us back to two games when everything went right and Real Madrid were obliterated 5-0 over two legs in the last-16 in 2009. Those, arguably, were the peak performances of Benitez’s Anfield years and you can see how much it means to him when he re-watches the highlights on an iPhone.
‘Good goal! Good goal!’ he smiles, when he looks at Steven Gerrard score in front of the Kop.
Benitez shares a joke with his assistant Sammy Lee during a team training session at Melwood training ground in 2009
‘After beating them 1-0 in the Bernabeu and Yossi Benayoun scored, there was a funny story,’ said Benitez. ‘The president Vincente Boluda, said there will be a ‘chorreo’, a storm, and there will be a lot of goals. He was right. We beat them 4-0 and Iker Casillas was man-of-the-match!’
He will be at Anfield on Tuesday. But he is too canny to make a prediction. ‘The Spanish press are talking about how Real Madrid always win against Liverpool when Jurgen Klopp is the manager,’ he says. ‘They talk about the finals and bap, bap, bap. But every year is different. Normally Madrid are a team that keeps the ball well, they pass the ball.
‘Liverpool, if they play with the same intensity as the last game, they will have their chances. The intensity of the team and the fans makes the difference.
‘It was,’ he concludes slightly wistfully, ‘the same back then.’
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