By Graham Hunter
There can be few 42-year-old coaches in world football with as broad a curriculum vitae as that of Valencia CF coach Rafael Benítez. After only one full season in charge at the Mestalla stadium, he has restored Valencia to the status of Spanish champions for the first time in 31 years - and now his side are playing with power and verve in this season's UEFA Champions League.
But perhaps Benítez's success was as predictable as it was deserved. A former junior coach to Vicente del Bosque in the Real Madrid CF youth teams, he is perhaps the single most voracious learner in the European game today.
Preparing for Wednesday's Group B match at Liverpool FC, Benítez explained: "I understand that if a coach already knows a lot of things about football then he can always still improve. My philosophy is that you must move around and understand the latest trends and best thinking in other countries."
Which is why, as recently as four years ago, when he was coaching CF Extremadura, Benítez could be spotted taking notes and watching attentively on the Manchester United FC training ground while then assistant manager Steve McClaren put Sir Alex Ferguson's players through their paces.
'English football fanatics'
"During my development as a coach, I have studied with Fabio Capello at AC Milan, Arrigo Sacchi when he was still Italian national coach, Claudio Ranieri while he was in charge at [AC] Fiorentina and worked under Raddy Antic and Vicente del Bosque in the Real Madrid youth and B teams," he says. "But it has been tremendous for me to go to England and learn their concept of football. Both my team's fitness coach, Francisco Ayestaran, and I are English football fanatics.
Focus and commitment
"My contact at United was Steve McClaren, and we have a fantastic relationship. I always ask him how you can coach the never-say-die attitude, focus and commitment of the English players. But Steve tells me that it is a natural phenomenon in the head and heart of every English player."
It is simple to identify much of what Benítez has soaked up during his odyssey of learning. Valencia play not only with an Italian defender, the 37-year-old former AS Roma right-back Amedeo Carboni, but also with the traditional Italian phobia for giving away goals.
Valencia limited their opposition to a mere 27 goals, scoring 51, with the foundation of their success laid on the best defensive record in the top flight. Particularly at the Mestalla, there is always a ferocious intensity about Valencia's play - which perhaps hints that Benítez's coaching has managed to instil some of the hunger and commitment he identifies at the heart of all the great English teams. But, above all, his eyes and ears have taught him, while watching Capello, Ferguson and Sacchi at work, that rigid discipline is at the core of all greatness.
Just before this season started, Benítez abandoned training and sent all his players home - then told the national media he had been unimpressed by their attitude to work that day. The result - Valencia sit second in the Primera División, and are favourites to make it to the Champions League second group stage from Group B.
'Stability brings greatness'
Benítez has also been awarded the new two-year contract at Valencia which he argues will be the cornerstone of further achievement. "I think continuity brings strength," he said. "Taking a club like Valencia or Liverpool back to the top to win a league or the Champions League is all about the squad you have and their attitude. Players need to know who is the boss - that there is one chief and his word is law. Stability brings greatness - that is what I have learned."
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