Odds stacked against Rafa Benitez at Everton but he aims to prove everyone wrong

New manager is dividing fans on both sides of Liverpool but he's meeting the challenge without fear

Rafael Benitez during his first press conference as Everton manager.
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Rafa Benitez is a divisive character. He has inspired great devotion and provoked equal disdain during his career. For once, almost everyone on Merseyside is in agreement about him. Hardly anyone wants the 61-year-old to be Everton’s manager.

The only person who is delighted is Benitez himself. The former Liverpool boss is thrilled to be in charge at Goodison Park.

The Spaniard has worked on hostile territory before. He was interim manager at Chelsea for six fraught months and his presence brought the crowds at Stamford Bridge to the point of insurrection. Benitez’s relationship with owner Roman Abramovich and the club’s board was positive, however, and he left west London on good terms after delivering the Europa League trophy.

Evertonians resent the former Liverpool manager. When they look at Benitez they do not see a Champions League-winning boss. Viewed through blue lenses he is merely the man who called Everton a “small club” and seriously offended the sensibilities of followers of the city’s senior team.

On the other side of the divide, many are struggling with the notion that a man whose face adorns Liverpool banners has crossed Stanley Park to join the enemy. The relationship between supporters of Merseyside’s Premier League clubs has deteriorated over the past quarter of a century. The "friendly derby" gets less genial with every year.

Benitez has created a strange kind of unity. Both fanbases begrudge his presence in the Goodison dugout. Almost everyone will take pleasure if he fails at Everton.

None of that concerns Benitez. He has a one-track mind and is fixated on winning trophies. Although he enjoys building relationships with fans – he was involved with activist supporters at Liverpool and Newcastle United – he has no interest in trying to charm the haters in the stands.

The biggest threat to Benitez comes from inside the club. His appointment to replace Carlo Ancelotti last month was driven not by the owner Farhad Moshiri but by Alisher Usmanov. The two men have been business associates for many years and Usmanov is the senior partner in the relationship. The Uzbek-born billionaire has no financial stake in Everton but his companies – USM and MegaFon – are significant sponsors of the club. Usmanov convinced a sceptical Moshiri that Benitez was the right choice. Almost no one else in the Everton hierarchy agrees.

That should change. Over the years, Benitez has acquired a reputation for being cold towards the squad and difficult to deal with in the boardroom. Players are often pleasantly surprised by his methods and his knack of improving those who listen on the training ground. He responds well to owners who lay down clear parameters and stick to their undertakings. It is when his employers renege on promises that difficulties arise.

Rafa Benitez had his critics at Chelsea.

This throws up questions: if Benitez’s biggest backer in the job is neither an owner nor a board member, will he get the level of support he is expecting? Usmanov may have unshakable belief in Everton’s new manager but will Moshiri’s commitment waver at the first sign of things going wrong?

Having Usmanov in your corner cannot be a bad thing. The former Arsenal shareholder consulted his fellow oligarch Abramovich during Everton’s recruitment process and received glowing reports from Chelsea’s owner. Benitez was coy on the details of his appointment in his first press conference, saying it was “complicated.” That was, in part, because of Usmanov’s involvement. When Ancelotti arrived at Goodison two years ago there was a sense of excitement and the feeling that Everton had pulled off a coup. The mood is different now. The club have not quite been bullied into accepting Benitez but there has been no elation.

The underlying suspicions mean there is no margin for error for Benitez. He needs to start the season well. Any dip in form will send the crowd into an angry frenzy. Moshiri will need to stand firm behind an employee he remains dubious about. One source close to the situation said that it was “the biggest gamble in Merseyside football history".

Ironically, if it was not for his Liverpool antecedents, Benitez would be the perfect manager for Everton. He throws himself into his jobs and shows total commitment; he is a superb coach; and unlike Ancelotti he will not be easily lured away. He has developed deep roots in the area and the family home is just 10 miles or so from Goodison. His ambition is to become a local hero. Again.

The odds are stacked against Benitez but he is meeting the challenge without fear. He smells opportunity and thinks he will prove almost everyone wrong.

Updated: July 15, 2021, 6:00 AM
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