He is Newcastle United’s manager these days, feted on Tyneside as an adopted Geordie, but Rafa Benitez is inextricably linked with Liverpool. Since 2004, the start of a six-year reign at Anfield, he has called Merseyside home. His wife and daughters stayed there while he took on assignments and temporary lodgings at Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli, Real Madrid and now at St. James’ Park.
“It will be emotional for me, as I have a lot of connections,” Benitez said of his old club on Friday, who Newcastle face at Anfield this weekend. “I have to concentrate on Newcastle now, but I wish them all the best.”
An unceremonious, unpopular sacking in June 2010 left him with unfinished business at a club he inspired to Champions League success in 2005 and an FA Cup the following year. At 57, chances of a second spell are ebbing, though as Jurgen Klopp suffers the first serious wobble of a Liverpool tenure nearing two years, and thoughts turn to possible replacements in the highly unlikely event of the German’s departure, Benitez remains a name in the frame.
“I know he’s still really connected to the club,” replied Klopp on Friday. “He wishes it all the best, and that’s how it should be.”
A Benitez team has yet to lose to Liverpool, and Sunday’s visit to Newcastle will be his former club’s fifth attempt. His Chelsea team drew 2-2 at Anfield in April 2013, a result overshadowed by Luis Suarez taking a bite out of Branislav Ivanovic’s arm. Three years later in April 2016, as Benitez attempted in vain to halt Newcastle’s slide to the Championship, the demoralised team he had taken over the previous month came back from two goals down for another 2-2 draw.
It was two Champions League victories for Valencia over Liverpool in the autumn of 2002 — a 2-0 win at the Mestalla and a 1-0 win at Anfield — that caught the eye of Rick Parry, the club’s then-chief executive. After Gerard Houllier was removed after six years in charge, Benitez became the No.1 target as a love affair began that endures despite both parties taking a number of different suitors since their painful break-up.
Life at Newcastle has been different to those days when Liverpool were shooting for the moon: going close to a second Champions League triumph, losing the 2007 final to AC Milan in Athens, and then pushing Manchester United to the brink in 2008-09 but missing out on a long-sought league title.
Newcastle face the reality of being a freshly promoted club, with last Sunday’s lacklustre 1-0 loss at Brighton a blip on what had been an otherwise bright start. Three wins from three matches have last season’s Championship champions in comfortable 10th place.
“It’s a big club, in a big city, but they’ve just been promoted from the Championship, so they are not a true Premier League team as of yet,” former Newcastle winger Kevin Gallacher told ESPN FC. “You only really become a Premier League club after you have stabilised yourself.”
There are plenty of echoes of the Liverpool days, with recent wrangles with owner Mike Ashley over transfers recalling when Benitez and Parry battled over recruitment, and the clashes with American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks that continued until that final 2009-10 campaign ended in disappointment and his dismissal.
As at Anfield, Newcastle fans have the manager’s back; controlling the message is an underappreciated quality for a man with a shy public manner who many players have remarked is almost impossible to get close to. Nobody, perhaps not even Ashley himself, sees Benitez as anything but his own man, and that only adds to his cachet among the Newcastle fans.
“It’s an unbelievable place when the fans get behind you,” Gallacher said. “At Newcastle, I always say that the colours dictate the club. It’s black and white, and the fans are the same. They tell you when you are good, they tell you when you are bad.”
Liverpool, a team accused of playing too fast and loose this season as their defence leaks goals, might fear one of Benitez’s meticulously planned strategies, the type that Steven Gerrard spoke about this week. “He always focuses on small details, a very organised coach and makes sure individuals are well-drilled in every position,” Liverpool’s former captain said.
Despite the wealth of attacking options that give Klopp chance to play an awesome foursome in Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool’s imbalance between that unit and a malfunctioning back six offers avenues for Benitez to exploit.
“Set pieces are key for them, but set pieces in the wrong part of the field don’t help you, so I can see a little bit of counterattacking in there,” Gallacher said. “It’s a case of marking the runners, the pass and move Liverpool play, and if they can do that, then Newcastle can get a nice little result.”
Benitez would relish the chance to show Liverpool what they may still be missing.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.