Rafa Benítez broke into tears when he was unveiled as Real Madrid’s coach last June at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. The prodigal son had returned, 20 years after leaving the city where he was born, raised and got married. In fact, he did his military service only 100 yards or so from the stadium.
Benítez joined Real Madrid at 13 years of age and, when his playing career was cut short following a knee ligament injury picked up playing for Spain at the World Student Games in Mexico in 1979, he joined the coaching staff at Real Madrid, briefly serving as Vicente del Bosque’s No 2 in 1994, before setting off on a 20-year global football coaching odyssey.
He’s only a few months into his first season as Real Madrid’s manager, though, and already problems threaten to overwhelm him. Even his successes – which include clean sheets in all four Champions League qualifying group games – are turned into negatives. He’s savaged in the Spanish press for being overly defensive and the lack of goals conceded this season are being explained away by the stupendous form of goalkeeper Keylor Navas who has been nicknamed Keylor Paras (“Keylor Saves”) by his teammates.
His team sets up with a bank of three central midfield players – Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and the Brazilian Casemiro – to shield the back four. Gone are the days of his predecessor Carlo Ancelotti’s freewheeling attacking play. Benítez favours control over spontaneity. The team’s performances have been workmanlike, rigid and in some cases flat, particularly in their anaemic 3-2 defeat by Sevilla in the last round of league games.
A telling incident occurred during their derby match with Atlético Madrid in early October. Real Madrid led 1-0 during the second half when Benítez substituted their goalscorer, the centre forward Karim Benzema for an extra midfielder, Mateo Kovacic. The ploy failed. Atlético nicked a late equaliser.
When Benítez was asked afterwards if any errors had upset him in the match, he singled out Sergio Ramos’ flaky defending which led to a first-half penalty. The defender had taken an “unnecessary risk”. Benítez was being logical, matter of fact. Ramos, however, who, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, was one of the senior Real Madrid players who lamented the departure of Ancelotti in the summer, wasn’t impressed.
While holed up at training camp with Spain a couple of days later, Ramos, who became club captain this season, countered by criticising his team coach for his lack of ambition against Atlético. “We could talk about my mistake or we could talk about the substitutions that were made in the game,” he said. “We all learn from our mistakes, players and coaches.”
Benítez’s tactlessness has led to a series of avoidable issues with his star man, Ronaldo, the three-times World Player of the Year winner whose self-love is famously so intense a journalist reviewing the new documentary, Ronaldo – the Movie, which premiered in London recently, reckoned he must shout his own name during sex.
In pre-season, Benítez refused to identify Ronaldo as the best player in the world, merely “one of the best”. When pressed on the issue in September before a Champions League tie, he dug in. “I cannot say Ronaldo is the best I have ever coached because I have had some very good players.”
They were bizarre, pedantic answers from a coach who has never managed another Ballon d’Or winner, and a failure to observe Rule No 1 in the Real Madrid coaching manual: Publicly claim Ronaldo, the club’s all-time top goalscorer, is better than Lionel Messi at every opportunity.
Benítez was already on a sticky wicket with Ronaldo. Part of the brief given to him by Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, is to move Gareth Bale centre stage. Bale, a presidential favourite because he was signed by Pérez, unlike Ronaldo who came to the club during the previous Ramón Calderón regime, is seen as the successor to Ronaldo who will be 31 in February.
To facilitate this transition, Ronaldo has been shunted from his favoured left-wing position.
He’s looking out of sorts. In Real Madrid’s game against Paris Saint-Germain in early November at the Bernabéu, he failed to get a touch of the ball inside PSG’s box. His shot-to-goal ratio is at its worst rate since arriving in Spain in 2009. For example, it currently stands at 12 per cent compared to 26 per cent last season. Off the pitch, there are reports he is toying with a move to PSG, who have been long-time admirers, next summer.
Benítez knows he is in a weak political position. According to Calderón, he was only the president’s fourth choice as manager when the club went to market in the summer behind the Germans Joachim Löw and Jurgen Klopp and former Real Madrid manager José Mourinho, whose outlandish behaviour Pérez found entertaining.
Barcelona – who are hitting their stride despite an early s eason injury crisis, which includes a knee ligament injury back in September to their talisman Messi – will arrive in the Spanish capital tomorrow for the clásico. A win for Barça would put them six points clear at the top of La Liga.
In Messi’s absence, Neymar Jr and Luis Suárez, dubbed “the two new Messis” by the Catalan press, have been in devastating form, racking up 20 goals between them in ten league games.
It may well take all of Benítez’s tactical guile, and some sorcery by Navas in goal, to keep them at bay.
• Richard Fitzpatrick is author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry (Bloomsbury).