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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Chess-loving Benitez lays out welcome mat

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Dan Walker | 19:42 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

There are very few managers who divide opinion quite as spectacularly as Rafael Benitez. There are those - many of whom are Liverpool fans - who will vehemently defend his record and style, while others dismiss his achievements and question whether he should be a football coach at all.

I remember sitting in a radio studio when an unnamed pundit claimed that Benitez had "offered nothing in 2005" and that the Champions League win over AC Milan in Istanbul was achieved "in spite of Benitez and certainly not because of him".

Benitez is seen by many as a manager who overspent at Liverpool, wasted the club's best chance of winning the title in recent seasons, let Sir Alex Ferguson get under his skin andfell out with the man crucial to Liverpool's success - Xabi Alonso.

I have spent plenty of time attending Benitez's media conferences over the years and interviewed the Spaniard on numerous occasions but last Thursday he invited the Football Focus cameras down to his pad in the Wirral. I spent the best part of two hours with him, playing chess, walking his dog and talking about his first love - football.

When we arrived, he burst out of the front door, welcomed us warmly and proceeded to show us around his gaff. While the tea was brewing and cameraman Sean and producer Richard were picking the perfect spot for our interview, Benitez beckoned me over to a sofa to show me his latest passion... photography. There were hundreds of pictures, mainly of scenery and sunsets. This, he said, was keeping him busy between jobs.

The main interview lasted about 25 minutes - and you can watch almost all of it below. The camera jumps around a bit because it was never intended to run as a single piece but so many people have requested the full thing that we thought we would try to deliver.

There was plenty said off camera that was even more fascinating. I don't want to tease you but if I could reveal what he said it would change your opinions about managers in general, Benitez in particular and some of the players he bought, sold and kept. I shall leave the man himself to unveil all that.

One part of the interview that fascinated me was the concept of football being "a lie". We didn't have time to get into this on Focus because there was so much good material to wedge in already but I think Benitez feels that, both at Liverpool and Inter Milan, his job was made a lot more difficult than it should have been.

The Italian situation probably sums up Benitez perfectly. Those who think he is a great manager and those who don't can fuel their arguments with what took place in Milan.

Some may argue that Benitez took over Jose Mourinho's treble-winning side and ruined them, failing to motivate the squad, deploying the wrong tactics, annoying the president, alienating the fans and the media before leaving only six months after taking over.

On the other hand, those that love him argue - as Benitez himself did in our interview - that he inherited the oldest squad in Europe yet still won two trophies in six months - albeit the Supercoppa Italiana and the Fifa Club World Cup - and could have added more if he had been allowed to buy players and not been undermined by the president and long-time servants of the club.

Walker and Benitez on the beachWalker and Benitez down on the beach

I am not sure of the truth but, whether in Milan or Merseyside, Benitez has been blamed for much that he shouldn't. Yes, he spent a lot at Liverpool but, as his supporters will tirelessly point out and his detractors conveniently ignore, he was always balancing the books. He will admit that he does talk a lot about "net spend" but it is always worth looking at the "players out" and "money in" columns before making a judgment.

Benitez will be back and probably in the Premier League. While we were walking one his dogs, Goofy, down on the beach, he talked about his desire to return to England's top flight, where he thinks he is best suited. The next time there is a vacancy at the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool... watch this space.

Before we left, I was given a perfect example of his will to win. We were filming a game of chess to use as colour for the interview. After about two minutes, I said we needed to speed things up for the purposes of TV and removed six or seven pieces from each side. "What are you doing?" piped up Benitez. "This is serious." We filmed the end sequence and shook hands for the cameras, at which point I stood up to thank him. "Sit back down," he said. "We have a game to finish."

I tried to unsettle him but he did not react to any of my mind games. "Chess is all about controlling the middle of the board... just like football," he proclaimed as he manoeuvred his pieces into an unassailable position.

"We'll play again sometime," he said as we left his pad, "once you've had a bit more practice." Apart from being humiliated at chess, I found Benitez as charming as he was interesting and I look forward to his return to the dugout.

Walker and Benitez play chessBenitez gives me a lesson in the finer points of chess

If you have any comments about Benitez, the interview or Football Focus in general, let us have them. Let's try really hard not to turn this into a "net spend" fest. If you want to follow the build-up this week's show then visit twitter.com/danwalkerbbc.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009