A predecessor's welcome at Anfield when Chelsea come to town will rankle a little with the Liverpool manager
The DW Stadium, 2 March, and Liverpool are destroying Wigan Athletic with a hat-trick from Luis Suárez and a penetrating passing game that reflects the ideals of Brendan Rodgers. But the exhibition is not the only thing on the away end's mind. "Rafa, Rafael, Rafa, Rafael, Rafa, Rafael, Rafael Benítez," comes that old familiar sound. Three years on from his unceremonious exit and Benítez's standing at Anfield is not only secure but in many respects enhanced.
An ulterior motive was of course at work at Wigan. Three days earlier, following an FA Cup fifth round win at Middlesbrough, Benítez had snapped at the Chelsea supporters who welcomed him to the club with outright hostility and a club hierarchy who had placed "interim" before his name. His Stamford Bridge days appeared even shorter than planned and Wigan provided opportunity for Liverpool to offer support at Chelsea's expense. Another chance arrives at Anfield on Sunday when Benítez makes his competitive return aiming to strengthen Chelsea's hold on Champions League qualification. It is unlikely to be passed up. Liverpool remember fondly the times he did the same with them.
Benítez was not universally mourned when his six-year Liverpool reign ended in June 2010. Even staunch admirers grew weary of the infighting and transfer errors that unravelled five previous years of progress in his final season. When the Kop chants his name on Sunday it will not be a declaration of revolt against Rodgers, as was the case when it yearned for Kenny Dalglish to end the torment of Roy Hodgson. And as Fenway Sports Group demonstrated in the search for Dalglish's replacement last summer, when Benítez's credentials were given short shrift, the club's owners wanted a clean slate.
"Rafael Benítez will deserve a great welcome," said Rodgers, who claims to be unperturbed at the support his predecessor may receive. "He won the European Cup here, which is a great achievement. There is no question he is a fantastic manager but I had confidence from the owners when I came in here that this process was going to take time. It wasn't going to be instant. And the owners have never wavered from that."
But many supporters did want Benítez back last summer and the memories, however selective, have been enriched during Liverpool's drift to the margins. No European Cup-winning manager is forgotten but Benítez's reputation at Liverpool is down to more than just Istanbul in 2005 and an FA Cup triumph the following year. There were two Champions League finals in three years, a further semi-final and quarter-final appearance, both ending in defeat by Chelsea as the two clubs forged a rivalry that accounts for Benítez's problems now. Throw in victories in Barcelona, Real Madrid, a record points tally for a Liverpool manager in the Premier League era of 86 – enough for the title in most seasons – and the present falls into stark focus.
Only in Benítez's last campaign did Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions League and then a place in the final of the Europa League was missed by the fine margin of an away goal against Atlético Madrid. Last week Rodgers claimed Liverpool could benefit from being without European football next season, the argument being a developing squad would concentrate greater energies on a top four finish. It was a sobering reflection on where the expectations that Benítez raised at Liverpool now stand.
Benítez has not been accepted at Chelsea for the reasons he remains so admired at Liverpool: he fought the team's corner, at any cost, whether against José Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson or the regime of the former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. He kept Liverpool competitive while they took the club to the brink of administration and he was removed by the then managing director Christian Purslow to appease a few dissenting voices in the dressing room, and to present a less fractious club to prospective buyers. Hence the appointment of a safe pair of hands in Hodgson, a bewildering decision before the benefit of hindsight.
Benítez was not replaced by a superior manager and Liverpool's slide accelerated to the point where Rodgers arrived with the brief of a major reconstruction job. It is doubtful Benítez would have reduced Liverpool's wage bill by roughly £20m without complaint, as Rodgers has had to do this season, but the Spaniard could also point to the £49m outlay on new players as greater than the transfer budget in his final three years at Anfield. And that's without going into net spend.
Benítez was guarded about his Anfield return on Friday, mindful of the consternation he recently provoked in Rodgers following comments about wishing to return "home" one day. "I was clear," Benítez said. "My home is there [the Wirral]. My family is there. I cannot change the past. I'm really proud of the rivalry and all these things but it's very clear: my commitment is with Chelsea and I will use common sense and try to get three points. Afterwards, I will wish the best to Liverpool Football Club." Nor would he elaborate on whether he was a candidate for the Liverpool job last summer. "That's something I will not talk about because I don't want any misunderstanding."
Rodgers clearly remains irked at what he perceives as the Spaniard manoeuvring for his job. "Managers are different," he said. "Some managers will speak about other jobs. Some won't. I won't speak about another manager in a position no matter how much I might want the job. It takes different types."
The present Liverpool manager also made a pointed reference to the two very different clubs that he and Benítez inherited on their arrivals at Anfield. "It won't be strange [to hear the Kop singing Benítez's name] because the club has always been very respectful towards former players and managers," Rodgers said. "I'm sure Rafael Benítez will get a great reception. It is interesting. In the season he won the Champions League Liverpool finished on 58 points [in the Premier League] and outside the top four. Gérard Houllier had 60 the year before and arrived in fourth. Everyone knows the history of that season and winning the Champions League bought another season in there to move the club forward."