The 55-year-old, who has replaced Italian Carlo Ancelotti to become Real’s 13th coach in the past 12 years, has returned to his hometown club, a place where he began his playing and coaching career.
If Benitez faced pressure when he left Spain to coach Liverpool more than a decade ago, he says the expectations are even greater in his new job.
“The demand and the starting point is different with respect to when I was unveiled at Liverpool,” Benitez said in yesterday’s press conference at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. “When I arrived at Liverpool, I had three years to help the club become competitive. Here, from the first minute, we have to compete and make sure we’re always at the top.”
Real finished third in the Primera Division behind Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in Ancelotti’s first season at the helm, but they won the Champions League after beating Atletico in the final. This year, Real finished second to Barca in La Liga and exited the Champions League after a defeat by Juventus in the semi-finals, results that cost Ancelotti his job.
Benitez has returned to Real 20 years after leaving the club where he had worked as the coach of their “B” team. “It’s an emotional day, a very special one,” a tearful Benitez said. “I’ve worked very hard to achieve success and return home, which was an aim of mine. The cycle is completed but I hope it lasts a long time. I hope things go well and we can win titles.”
Benitez takes over from a coach that he is very fond of. “Carlo is a great coach and a wonderful person,” Benitez said. “I spoke to Carlo. I have a great relationship with him. I wish him the best and I hope the day I leave, the players will give me the same farewell that Carlo got.”
Benitez was told at his unveiling by president Florentino Perez, he will face his biggest challenge to date. “At Real, the demands are maximum,” Perez said. “You arrive to the biggest club in the world. We have won more titles than any other but we want more. Today, we start a new chapter. We are certain that the arrival of our new coach will make us stronger.”
Benitez won the Coppa Italia with Napoli in the 2013-14 campaign and got the team into the qualifying round for this season’s Champions League, yet they lost to Athletic Bilbao and were eliminated.
He is thrilled to be back in Madrid and said: “For me, it’s a challenge. I know I have a great team, a very competitive one, and I want to do a good job and win titles. This is the biggest quality team that I have ever coached.” Benitez, who ended his two-year stint with Napoli on Sunday, has been away from Spain since 2004 when he left Valencia to take the helm of Liverpool.
He is the first Spanish coach to be appointed at Real since Juande Ramos took the reins in 2008 and the first Spaniard in Perez’s second term as president. Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, Portugal’s Jose Mourinho and Ancelotti were the last three coaches.
Perez is happy to see Benitez take charge and he said: “He arrived at Real at the age of 13 and now he has the opportunity to coach the first team. During nine years, he has coached different teams of Real Madrid.”
“There is no one better than you,” he said to his new coach. “To know what we represent and what we want. Your heart is Madridista.”
Benitez has been one of the biggest coaching names in football for more than a decade. He led Valencia to two Primera Division titles, back-to-back appearances in Champions League finals and a Uefa Cup crown.
He also steered Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005, when his team staged a major comeback in the final to stun an Ancelotti-led AC Milan.
Benitez won the FA Cup and Uefa Super Cup while at Liverpool. The veteran coached Inter Milan in 2010 but was sacked three months into the Serie A season. He also led Chelsea to the Europa League title in the 2012-13 campaign before joining Napoli.
“He is one of the best coaches in the world,” Perez said. “A coach that demands the best from his players.”
Benitez, meanwhile, refused to offer comment on transfer speculation, including the possible arrival of Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea.