Rafael Benitez has enjoyed a long and successful career amongst the elite of European football, the Spaniard amongst the most highly-respected managers of the last two decades.
Benitez has won major silverware in Spain, England and Italy, amongst his highlights including guiding Valencia to two league titles and memorably helping Liverpool to Champions League success during his debut season on Merseyside.
Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid all sit on an illustrious CV, Benitez having coached some of the finest players of recent generations during his tenure at the top.
We’ve decided to compile a dream XI of the best players Rafa has coached throughout his career, arranging this side of notable names into a 4-4-2 diamond formation.
Here is our best XI of players Rafa Benitez has managed:
Goalkeeper: Santiago Canizares – Valencia
Benitez inherited a Valencia squad which has reached back-to-back Champions League finals under Héctor Cúper before turning the side into champions of Spain, ending a three decade wait for a La Liga title in his debut season at the Mestalla.
Amongst the cornerstones of that formidable side in the early 2000’s was goalkeeper Santiago Canizares, a leader for Los Ches as Valencia briefly halted the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain – their first title success coming after a league-low of just 27 goals conceded.
Canizares spent a decade with the club and cemented himself as one of the finest goalkeepers in world football, winning two league titles and the UEFA Cup under Benitez before the latter’s departure to take charge of Liverpool.
Right-back: Branislav Ivanovic – Chelsea
Benitez’s time in charge of Chelsea may have be a wholly unpopular caretaker spell, though he delivered major silverware in the form of a dramatic Europa League final victory over Benfica.
The west London side won Europe’s secondary competition for the first time courtesy of a stoppage-time winner from full-back Ivanovic, the Serbian establishing himself as one of the finest in English football during a nine-year spell in English football.
Renowned for his imposing style, power and bravery, Ivanovic provided a notable threat at either end of the pitch, his unrelenting commitment marking him out as one of the most popular Chelsea players of recent years.
Centre-back: Sergio Ramos – Real Madrid
Sergio Ramos may prove a divisive figure in footballing circles but there is no disputing the Spaniard’s status amongst the finest defenders of his generation, winning a host of major honours during a lengthy career at Real Madrid including four league titles and four Champions Leagues.
The combination of one of Europe’s leading centre-backs and Benitez – a coach famed for his tactical discipline – may have seemed a perfect match on paper, though the latter lasted just seven months before the axe fell at the Bernabeu.
Centre-back: Roberto Ayala – Valencia
The former Argentina international is perhaps an underrated presence in the modern game, an imposing defender who brought leadership, ability and a win-at-all-costs mentality to a fine Valencia side at the turn of the millennium.
Ayala thrived on the basics of defending and in Benitez he found the perfect coach, forming a brilliant partnership alongside compatriot Mauricio Pellegrino to inspire Valencia to two La Liga triumphs and success in Europe.
The club’s first title success was built on their defensive strength – their leading scorer defensive midfielder Ruben Baraja with just seven league goals – and Ayala’s marshalling of that backline earns him a deserved inclusion here.
Left-back: Ashley Cole – Chelsea
Another player who only enjoyed a brief stint under Benitez’s management, but Ashley Cole’s reputation as arguably the finest left-back of his generation earns his place in the Spaniard’s all-time best XI.
Cole was recognised as a leader of the Chelsea side Benitez inherited for the second half of the 2012/13 season, playing a key role during the club’s run to Europa League success.
Few players have ever delivered with such unerring reliability and consistency, Cole amongst the most decorated players in the history of English football.
Midfield: Xabi Alonso – Liverpool
Xabi Alonso proved to be one of Benitez’s best buys and biggest mistakes of a six-year spell at Liverpool, the young Spaniard arriving to bolster the club’s midfield ranks and playing a crucial role in their improbable Champions League triumph in 2005, memorably scoring the equaliser against AC Milan in Istanbul.
Alonso’s unrivalled passing range and ability to dictate play saw him flourish into one of the best deep-lying playmakers in world football, the conductor of the side and a player capable of technical brilliance.
Alonso won the Champions League and FA Cup during his time on Merseyside before the club’s pursuit of Gareth Barry unsettled the star, leading to his departure to Real Madrid.
The midfielder won a host of major honours including four league titles and the Champions League during spells at the Bernabeu and later Bayern Munich, in addition to lifting the World Cup and two European Championships with the Spanish national side.
Midfield: Steven Gerrard – Liverpool
Steven Gerrard has often spoken of the ‘cold’ relationship he shared with Benitez during their time at Liverpool, but there is no doubting the midfielder enjoyed the peak years of his career under the guidance of the Spanish tactician.
Gerrard was the heartbeat of the Reds side which delivered Champions League and FA Cup success under Benitez, producing his most memorable displays in a Liverpool shirt during the finals of those competitions.
The foundations of Gerrard’s Liverpool legacy are built on his sensational displays during Benitez’s reign, whilst it’s difficult to envisage the latter enjoying such a fond reputation at Anfield without the inspirational displays of the former club captain.
Midfield: Luka Modric – Real Madrid
The only player in the last decade to break the Ballon d’Or duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Luka Modric has become arguably the most influential midfielder of his generation during a lengthy career of success at Real Madrid.
Benitez managed the Croatian schemer during his brief period in charge at the Bernabeu, where he will no doubt have been left impressed by the diminutive star’s ability to completely control proceedings.
Modric’s recognition as the world’s finest player two years ago was a just reward given the often statistic-obsessed nature of football, a perfectly balanced playmaker who makes simple football so enthralling to watch.
Midfield: Wesley Sneijder – Inter Milan
The Netherlands international was the creative fulcrum of the Inter Milan side Benitez inherited from Jose Mourinho in 2010, Sneijder having inspired the Nerazzurri to Italian football’s first ever continental treble before starring as Holland reached the final of that summer’s World Cup.
That Sneijder only finished fourth in the voting for that year’s Ballon d’Or seems incredibly harsh, though it should not detract from a player amongst the finest talents in the world at the peak of his powers.
Technically superb, full of energy and capable of defence-splitting passes at will, Sneijder had just enjoyed the best period of his career prior to Benitez’s ill-fated spell at the San Siro.
Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid
Selecting hypothetical best XI’s can be a tricky and contentious business, but Cristiano Ronaldo must surely rank as a shoe-in for any dream team for which he is eligible.
Benitez briefly managed the Portuguese superstar during his time at Real Madrid, Ronaldo in the midst of a career in the Spanish capital that delivered four Champions League titles and four Ballon d’Or awards amongst his extensive collection of honours.
The greatest goalscorer in the history of Portugal, Real Madrid and the Champions League, it is impossible to leave out a player who has set unprecedented goalscoring standards during a career that leaves him firmly cemented amongst the game’s all-time greats.
Forward: Fernando Torres – Liverpool/Chelsea
Fernando Torres’ career may have suffered from an almighty fall from grace, but the forward was arguably the most feared centre-forward in world football during a brief but brilliant peak at Liverpool.
Benitez decided to break the club’s transfer record to sign his compatriot from Atletico Madrid, and Torres would make an immediate impact by enjoying the highest-scoring debut season of any foreign player in Premier League history.
Silverware may have proven elusive but Torres’ scintillating pace and finishing made him a huge fans’ favourite on the Kop, though he departed in acrimonious circumstances for Chelsea with a record of 81 goals in just 142 appearances.
Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League medals would all be won at Stamford Bridge – the latter under the guidance of Benitez – but he struggled to recapture the devastating form that saw him terrorise defences on Merseyside.