Can cup king Benitez be taken seriously as a potential Serie A winner?

The Spaniard has started life in Naples on the right foot, but he will have to buck his recent trend if they are to triumph in the league this term

By Kris Voakes

When Rafa Benitez eventually calls it a day and retires from football coaching, he will have quite a trophy collection to show his grandchildren.

The winner of a Champions League, Europa League, European Super Cup, Club World Cup and FA Cup, he has made a habit of winner major trophies in recent years. But while the 53-year-old stands as one of the most successful coaches in the game at present, it is now nine years since he was a league winner.

Since that 2004 Primera Division win with Valencia that earned him a move to Liverpool, Benitez has been unable to replicate the two league championships he won with los Che at a time when Real Madrid and Barcelona both appeared fallible. A lot has changed in football in the years that have passed.

The Spaniard has racked up trophies at Liverpool, Inter and Chelsea since leaving Spain, and it was his reputation as a winner that led to Aurelio De Laurentiis appointing him as Walter Mazzarri’s successor in the summer. The Napoli president’s project has been successful so far, but what it is lacking is consistent silverware. Benitez was seen as the perfect man to bring in the medals.

Had things worked out differently, Gonzalo Higuain might have been lining up for Juventus on Sunday night rather than Napoli.

In a summer of many sagas, the Bianconeri eventually plumped for Carlos Tevez as their second forward signing following Fernando Llorente. Most observers of a Juve persuasion will tell you they are more than happy with how things turned out, with Tevez having started life in Turin very well.

Speak to Neapolitans, though, and they’ll tell you that Higuain’s form has allowed them to quickly forget about the loss of former talisman Edinson Cavani. His eight goals this term have ensured that Napoli are in a good position in the Champions League and also well in the Serie A shake-up.

But, by the season’s end, one is likely to be picked over the other as being one of the signings of the summer. Sunday night may give us the first clue as to which will be considered the better deal come May.

However, having won the Coppa Italia in 2012, Napoli’s next target has to be the league title. And in Benitez they have a coach who has fallen short regularly in recent years.

His first season with Liverpool will always be remembered for the marvellous feat of Champions League glory, stolen from the grasps of despair following a now famous six-minute period that stunned AC Milan. However, in finishing 37 points behind champions Chelsea in fifth place that term, they were only late entrants into the following season’s Champions League, after the English governing body found a loophole in Uefa’s rules that initially had Everton competing at Liverpool’s expense.

One year later, a third-placed finish was enough to win the Reds direct entry to the competition despite losing their continental crown after a knockout loss to Benfica. Meanwhile, a dramatic FA Cup final win boosted Benitez’s reputation further.

In 2006-07, the Spaniard was again lauded for his qualities in Europe, leading Liverpool to another Champions League final alongside a second successive bronze medal in the Premier League. But by the time they’d finished fourth in 2007-08, the club’s owners were rightly wondering when a title challenge might finally come. On average, Liverpool had finished 20 points off the pace over the first four years of the Spaniard’s rule.

It was in 2009 that Benitez came closest to emulating those triumphs in La Liga, but after holding a significant advantage at one stage, Liverpool fell four points short of Manchester United despite beating the eventual champions home and away. They had fallen down thanks to their propensity to draw winnable games, particularly in the closing stages of the campaign. They lost only twice all season but fell three wins short of United’s tally.

A seventh-placed finish in 2010 – 23 points off title contention – saw Benitez part ways with the club, but his switch to Inter would not be a long-term arrangement despite a Club World Cup win, while Chelsea had long since fallen away from league contention by the time Benitez was surprisingly asked to replace Roberto Di Matteo last season.

His success in the Europa League was considered a credible feat, but it still wasn’t a test of Benitez’s ability to take a team successfully through the cut and thrust of a title race. Ten seasons on from his last league title, and a full five since the last time he even had a tilt, the Spaniard has something to prove.

On Sunday, his Napoli side face a Juventus team who continue to display a sheen of superiority in the peninsula but have proved in their European form that they have rough edges to be exploited. Benitez is a man who has shown himself to have the skills to take advantage of just such weaknesses in the past, but has fallen short of seeing the job through over 38 rounds over the past decade.

The trip to Juventus Stadium is his first huge Serie A evening with the Partenopei, but a win will mean nothing if he doesn’t lift the Scudetto aloft come May. Napoli fans would quite like what Liverpool, Inter and Chelsea got with Benitez in charge, but what they really want is to replicate Valencia.

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