Mixed emotions on Rafa’s Anfield return
Anfield will be home to a bizarre atmosphere on Sunday, as Rafa Benitez makes his return to Liverpool as manager of another club for the first time since being sacked under an evil and twisted management and ownership structure in 2010.
April 20th, 2013
He is a man who is still greatly adored by a large proportion of the Liverpool faithful, fully convinced he was released too early and not allowed to finish a great job he started. After all, he won the European Cup in 2005, the FA Cup in 2006, took the Reds to another European Cup Final in 2007, and enjoyed the club’s best ever Premier League season in 2009.
Yet at his new, and soon to be old, club he has been vilified by the Chelsea supporters from the start. That is despite taking over a falling club, leading them to the semi-finals of the Europa League and FA Cup, and to third in the league table. They come to Merseyside on Sunday off the back of a 3-0 victory at Fulham on Wednesday night and hoping to cement that third Champions League qualifying position.
Since Rafa’s return to Premier League management this season, I’ve felt an awkward imbalance of loyalty. I can only think it may be comparable to having feelings for an ex-lover, even though she’s now sleeping with an Evertonian. If some weird parallel world could have existed this season in which Rafa had won all the trophies (on the assumption Liverpool wouldn’t), but Chelsea win nothing, I would have taken that.
Of course, not all that glitters is gold and Rafa did prove somewhat divisive towards the end of his reign at Liverpool, before being replaced by the questionable appointment of Roy Hodgson. Fans became pro- or anti-Rafa, after a disappointing season, following up the title race season in which they finished second with a lacklustre seventh finishing spot.
Had those in the anti-Rafa brigade known what was around the corner – two Cowboy owners ousted under dramatic legal proceedings, a sixth month tenure of inept Hodgson, and a failed second management spell for club legend, Kenny Dalglish, sticking with Rafa might now not have been seen as a bad idea after all.
Despite that place in my heart for Rafa, who has made no secret that he still holds a place in his for Liverpool, we are on a new journey right now. This season, as most it seems these days, has been a season for transition and whilst we’re embroiled in “the race to nowhere” with our Merseyside neighbours, with neither side looking likely to gain European qualification, we have certainly made progress.
Rodgers’ footballing philosophy is refreshing, even if it is still riddled with a few learning curves along the way. But the Northern Irishman has consistently admitted that his transition of the club will take time, and he is still several key players away from completing his ideal Reds squad.
Although the league position hasn’t improved this season (the Reds still sit in lowly seventh), the football has. We’re playing a much more pressing game, with an emphasis on attack. The acquisitions of Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho support Luis Suarez in the front line and the rejuvenation of Stewart Downing has brought about some much needed width to the team.
In Liverpool’s last game – a 0-0 draw at Reading – the Reds recorded 11 shots on target, constantly being denied by impressive Royals keeper Alex McCarthy.
‘In Rafa We Trust’ was the infamous slogan as Reds fans took an adoring following to Benitez’s era at Liverpool. But now that trust is in Rodgers and the work he’s doing both on the field and in the transfer market, to make Liverpool catch up to speed with modern football.
On Sunday, the songs and flags will no doubt be out for Rafa, but as soon as the game kicks off, it’s us against them. The Liverpool-Chelsea rivalry will be reignited and a victory over the Blues will taste that little bit more sweeter this time round.