One thing is perfectly clear, even from the other side of the world. “Roman Abramovich is back,” says Rafa Benitez, a trace of doom in his voice suggests that his eyes are glittering. “Chelsea has to do it.”
Benitez knows what it feels like to fight against the power of Abramovich’s fortune. He faced them 26 times in six years as Liverpool boss, sparring with Jose Mourinho, inspiring a modern rivalry that is still alive as the teams prepare for another clash on Sunday.
Six months at Stamford Bridge gives him an insight into how Chelsea works, and he has remained well-connected with the Premier League since moving to take charge of Dalian Pro in the Chinese Super League.
Rafa Benitez believes Chelsea should deliver after their spending in this transfer window
Chelsea manager Roman Abramovich has approved the signings of a large number of star players
There is now a significant amount of pressure on Chelsea boss Frank Lampard to succeed
“The rivalry with Mourinho’s Chelsea was good for the game,” said Benitez. ‘There was passion and emotion. Rivalry in football is great as long as it is well respected and no one loses control or crosses boundaries.
“The fact that we can compete with them, with all the money they spend, says a lot about our progress at the time. Each game was a challenge to think a step or two ahead – “if they do this, we will and if we do, they might do this”.
‘There was always something. We modified our zone marker to stop John Terry at corners, hand to hand. Frank Lampard liked to play one touch from the center of the field for Didier Drogba who was faster than Sami Hyypia and we tried to make sure Sami recognized the situation.
Benitez stressed that his high-profile rivalry with Jose Mourinho was good for football
Before a game I thought they might have a weakness on the right back and then they moved Michael Essien to the right back and he was so good they had no weakness. They were strong, on the ball, aggressive and well organized. You can see in the Premier League how well they did.
“We’re talking Formula 1. If they have a better car in the competition, they’ll pass you on the straight and that’s it. The Champions League is a winding track and there are opportunities to show your talent as a driver. We were able to participate and I was proud of my team. ‘
At Liverpool Benitez won the Champions League and the FA Cup. He arrived at Chelsea mid-season to win the Europa League and finish third in the Premier League, despite animosity from supporters who couldn’t overlook his Anfield connection.
“The majority realized what we were doing,” said Benitez. ‘People remember the fans against us, but we didn’t have too many problems. The staff and majority of the players were nice.
Benitez happily spoke about his time at Chelsea, despite criticism from some supporters
“I went to Waitrose and people stopped me from talking and they appreciated what we were doing.”
Benitez also had a good rapport with board and owner Abramovich, who invited him to a dinner in New York at the end of the season to recognize his work.
‘That means we delivered. They could tell we were professionals, worked hard, and did things well. I have not regretted it.
“The problem right now was they wanted to win, they had to win, they were desperate to win. As soon as something was wrong they changed the manager and changed the policy.
But the reality is that they were improving the system, Michael Emenalo did well as the director of football, their academy was very good and always won the FA Youth Cup. Now you can see that Abramovich is back with his support and they have attracted many good players and will be very competitive.
This year Chelsea and Manchester United have to perform. They have spent some money in recent years. ‘
Benitez leads Dalian Professional in China and spoke about the impact of the pandemic
It’s nearly midnight in Dalian, part of the day Benitez often sets aside to catch up with family and friends in Europe since being in China – coming out of lockdown with strict quarantines and extensive testing.
“When we got back to Dalian, a city of about seven million people, there had been three or four cases, they said, and they took 190,000 tests,” Benitez said. “When it got to about 20 cases, they ran four million tests in a few days.”
Dalian Pro was at a pre-season training camp in Xiamen, South China, when the virus broke out and spent more than a month in Spain before returning to their hometown, just 300 kilometers from the border with North Korea.
Everyone wears a mask and gloves. People keep their distance. There is antibacterial gel everywhere.
‘In restaurants they measure your temperature and give you a bag to put your mask in. They take a temperature in the taxis. In the hotel they take your temperature and clean the elevators every hour.
‘We have an app for traveling around Dalian and another app for Beijing. If you were close to someone with the virus it’s orange, if not it’s green. If you have the virus, it will be red. ‘
The start of the season was delayed by five months and then rearranged, with the teams randomly split into two groups of eight, with the top four of each group going on to fight for the title and the bottom four then fighting to win. survive.
The games started in July and players and technical staff have been together in a hotel for two months. They are regularly tested. Benitez had his 19th test ahead of the Chinese FA Cup game against Shandong Luneng on Friday.
Dalian is known as China’s football city, although it hasn’t had a successful team for years.
Benitez was hired last year on a lucrative contract with a mandate to lay the foundation for a future in which that status can be restored.
Thanks to the support of multinational project developers Wanda, Dalian Pro has a new and impressive £ 250 million training complex. “They want us to leave a legacy,” Benitez said.
Everything he wanted to see Newcastle invest in is there for him in China. The irony is not lost to him. Unfortunately, the restrictions on quotas and salary caps make it difficult to catch up lost ground at the first team level and compete with the might of Guangzhou Evergrande, champion of eight for the past nine years, and Shanghai SIPG, where Oscar is reportedly is earned. £ 20 million a year.
“We’ve always had better players,” said Benitez. “When we started to win with Valencia, the president said,” We give you a piece of meat and you create a player. ” It was a problem for me. He knew I could improve players and didn’t spend big money.
‘I love coaching and improving, don’t forget that I was a gym teacher. But we have not spent much, not even at Real Madrid. Perhaps the only time two years at Napoli was when we transformed the team and made it international, as the president wanted.
‘At Newcastle we spent more than the others when we won the championship and the rest of the teams – Liverpool, Inter, Real Madrid – whatever you want to say were not the biggest spenders and we competed at the top.
Benitez, who was last in England with Newcastle, is ready to return to the Premier League
Benitez finished second in the Premier League with Liverpool in 2009 and were delighted to finally put an end to the 30-year wait to become English champions again.
‘They have done really well and they have the opportunity to stay on top. I’m glad about that. ‘
Still, he hasn’t abandoned the idea of returning to England one day and competing again for the biggest prizes.
At 60, a birthday celebrated in lockdown, he wants to coach for another 10 years, despite the advice of his wife Montse.
“My wife tells me to relax a bit,” he said. ‘But I like being on the field, preparing my tactics and competing for trophies. Of course I see myself back in the Premier League and closer to my family. When? I do not know.
In the meantime, I will continue to watch the Premier League games with my staff. We have arguments depending on the team we support.
“The pandemic has changed a lot, but it hasn’t changed our passion for the game.”
Liverpool fans often talk to Benitez about the club’s Champions League success in 2005
It’s been a decade since he left Anfield and wherever he goes, Benitez will find supporters willing to talk about Istanbul.
“They tell me it was the best Champions League final ever,” he said with a smile. ‘I’ve often seen the videos of fans in the stands filming on their phones.
‘I couldn’t feel those emotions at the time, but you watch these videos and you see what it means.
‘People said we were lucky, but we beat Juventus and Chelsea, great teams. We were not lucky. ‘
Chelsea fans will of course never let him forget Luis Garcia’s goal in the second leg of the semi-final at Anfield. The decisive blow of the game – labeled a ‘ghost goal’ by Mourinho – likely ignited the rivalry.
Chelsea supporters will never let Benitez forget the ‘ghost goal’ Luis Garcia made for Liverpool in 2005
“They always say,” Oh yes, it wasn’t a goal “and I’ll say,” OK then, a red card for Petr Cech for being a foul on Milan Baros “.
‘They were so strong and the way we defended, with that last shot off the post from Eidur Gudjohnsen, the emotions were so high, the atmosphere was huge and it’s something I’ll remember forever.
“I’m not living in the past, but remember all these games and I can’t stop people from saying,” Oh, Istanbul, this or that “. I’ve heard people say, “Don’t tell my wife, but that was the best day of my life.” I’ve heard that so many times. ‘