With SSC Napoli's Rafael Benítez turning 55 today, UEFA.com celebrates a coach with "the mind of a prosecution barrister and the words of a Spanish troubadour".
Article top media content
"It's funny because in Spain they say I'm a coach who plays ultra-defensive football – in Italy completely the opposite," said Rafael Benítez as he reflected on his coaching career. "The truth is that the key word for me is 'balance'."
With the SSC Napoli boss celebrating his 55th birthday on the day of their UEFA Europa League quarter-final opener at VfL Wolfsburg, UEFA.com remembers his peak years in European football with words from the Spaniard and those who helped him become one of the most successful tacticians in UEFA club competition history.
Valencia CF: Liga (2002, 2004), UEFA Cup (2004)
Benítez was reportedly fourth choice to replace Héctor Cúper but proved an inspirational coach, his attack-minded side taking two Liga titles and winning the 2003/04 UEFA Cup.
Benítez on Valencia: There was a very good mentality, a winning team. We won the Spanish league twice after 31 years. We saw at the time that this team had the quality, the character, a very good spirit. And the UEFA Cup at this time was quite difficult – we played against Marseille with Didier Drogba. It was a very good team but we also had a very strong mentality.
Jaume Ortí, former Valencia president: We were very lucky to find someone capable of doing what he did: building an ambitious team with a winning mentality; a team that had a lot of belief in what they did and how they did it. I'll always be grateful for what he did. He was, and is, a professional and the trophies he has won are there for all to see, as is the work he did with Valencia and the other teams he has coached.
Rubén Baraja, former Valencia midfielder: He managed to forge a style, a way of working, and construct a team with very defined characteristics – without any weaknesses. It was a very complete team, as strong in attack as in defence, where every player knew his job. He was also an innovator when it came to squad rotation; he kept everyone fresh physically and mentally so we could all be competitive in every game. Our team was like a machine.
Liverpool FC: UEFA Champions League (2005), UEFA Super Cup (2005), FA Cup (2006)
The Spaniard transformed Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher into world-class performers, and led the team to their 2005 UEFA Champions League shoot-out success against AC Milan in Istanbul.
Benítez after the 2005 final: I don't have words to express what I feel at the moment. You concede in the first minute, you lose Harry Kewell, players go down with cramp and it's very difficult. We tried to change things at half-time and said it would be different if we scored – and it was. The players believed and we won.
Steven Gerrard, Liverpool captain: Rafa is obsessed with football 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You have to take your hat off to him. He's one of the best managers there is. Rafa is the type that when you finish a game as man of the match having scored three goals, he won't even mention it. Instead, he'll mention that you never used your left foot at a certain point. But Rafa does it right. I have had lots of 'well dones' from him, but when I need a kick up the backside I get it too.
Dietmar Hamann, former Liverpool midfielder: Sometimes talking to Rafa was like when your car windscreen's iced up on a winter's morning. You can't see anything, but when you switch on the de-icer gradually you start to see through the impenetrable barrier of ice – a hazy picture emerges and within two minutes you have a full technicolor image. Rafa had the ability to achieve this rapid transformation from total blankness to incredible insight in just two minutes. He was incisive. He had the mind of a prosecution barrister and the words of a Spanish troubadour.
FC Internazionale Milano: FIFA Club World Cup (2010)
Replacing Real Madrid CF-bound José Mourinho days after his departure from Liverpool, Benítez was to last barely six months at Internazionale, but lifted the Italian Super Cup and the Club World Cup.
Benítez on Inter: At Inter, I could not do everything I wanted, but I left with two trophies and a lot of friends.
Chelsea FC: UEFA Europa League (2013)
A controversial appointment for the then-European champions, Benítez did not much appreciate the job title 'interim manager' but left his mark, making Chelsea one of four sides to have landed all three major UEFA club trophies.
Benítez after the 2013 final:My success? It depends on your perceptions. When you put it all together, what we've managed in terms of keeping the squad together and coping with injuries, I think we've done well. You have to win for people to realise what you're trying to do. We won, so hopefully everyone now knows.
David Luiz, former Chelsea midfielder, after the 2013 final: It was a very demanding year. We were expected – obliged – to do very well after last year and there was pressure and demands from everyone. We lost three finals this season [FA Community Shield, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup] and now I want to dedicate this victory to [manager] Rafael Benítez because he did a wonderful job with us.
Frank Lampard, former Chelsea midfielder: He's a professional bloke. He prepared very well for games. And it was a difficult situation for him as well. As interim manager it was always going to be quite difficult because we all knew it was only to the end of the season. So there was no planning, no long-term relationships were going to be built. So, in that respect, he did a good job because we got the end result – success.
SSC Napoli: Coppa Italia (2014)
Hired in May 2013, Benítez has satisfied the demands of some of the most passionate fans in Italy, with this season's march to the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals their best European campaign in a generation.
Benítez on Napoli: So far we have won the Italian Super Cup against a great side in Juventus. This is something very important and I want to highlight it. We're also in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia and the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League. It's been 26 years since this club made it so far in a continental competition – not since the times of Diego Maradona.
Dries Mertens, Napoli winger: Benítez is a great coach who is doing an amazing job at Napoli. He makes us better every day. I hope he will stay here.
Benítez on his culture: I worked in England for many years but my culture is Latin and I can completely understand the great passion of Napoli fans. I think the supporters here understand my passion as well. The only difference is that I don't express it with gestures but with the commitment to hard work every day. The Napoli fans can see that and they just judge how the team is playing.