While a top-four finish may count as a success for Liverpool these days, it was once quite different. The Reds were once a bastion of success, with league titles expected every year. When Rafa Benitez was appointed in 2004, the hope was that he could return that mentality to the club.
The Spaniard’s remit was a simple one, guide Liverpool back to the top of the table. It was where they, and the fanbase, felt they belonged. It’s a feeling that is unlikely to ever go away.
At the time, their dominance of the title charts was under serious threat from Manchester United, Alex Ferguson having made it his ambition to topple them; it was a job he would succeed in, of course.
Liverpool had high hopes in Benitez; he was a man who had previous experience of upsetting the apple cart, having led Valencia to La Liga success, breaking up the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid in the process.
Unlike at the Mestalla, though, he would fail at Anfield. A title would never come and a look back suggests that failure is worse than it first appeared.
Benitez is a good manager, only stain on his CV is his failure to win league with Liverpool when they definitely should have won 1.
— Kathryn (@agitpro) November 25, 2012
The team he had at his disposal highlights just how big a failure it was. During his reign, the Spaniard had a starting XI that some managers could only dream of.
Pepe Reina was at his peak in goal, while Jamie Carragher was a consistent performer in central defence. Combined with a central midfield pair of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano had the perfect balance to it while Steven Gerrard was continually phenomenal ahead of him.
Dirk Kuyt was the workhorse that every team needs albeit one that consistently produced when called upon. Up front, Fernando Torres was among the elite level strikers at the time.
If you wanted to build a spine for a team, this was how you would do it; their strength is something Gerrard himself has spoken of often since.
That group of players could have all played for much bigger clubs, two of them ended up at Barcelona and Real Madrid. Together, they should have been a title-winning side. The midfield three alone should have been the basis of a successful, era defining Liverpool midfield.
Instead, Benitez wasted what was available to him. His constant tinkering and often baffling changes held the team back considerably, with many thinking it hindered Gerrard from becoming even better than he was.
Better managers would have made more use of it. Jose Mourinho would have brought titles to Anfield with that side, make no mistake. So, too, would Arsene Wenger, probably. Benitez’s failure to do so is likely among his deepest regrets.
Disagree here. Back in 08/09, Liverpool probably had the best team in the PL, but blew it. Year after they came 7th! https://t.co/jlxHfrlVBR
— Derek Ryan (@derekryan) April 11, 2017
At the time, England’s top flight was not as competitive as it is today. Arsenal had begun their midlife crisis under Wenger, Chelsea rudderless when Mourinho departed. Manchester City and Tottenham were not the regular challengers that they are today.
United were a force under Ferguson’s rule but they were not infallible; Benitez could have upset them, as he had done in Spain previously.
With the team he had at his disposal, Liverpool should have been title challengers every year. Instead, they would only get within touching distance on one occasion, the 2008/09 campaign.
That year provides the perfect microcosm of Benitez’s reign as a whole. With Alonso, Mascherano, Gerrard and Torres they looked unbeatable at times. Indeed, it was arguably the best Liverpool side for close to two decades.
United, their biggest obstacle to the title could not even touch them head-to-head. Liverpool would be eight points ahead of them at one point, including sitting top of the table at Christmas.
The signs looked good and yet, it was Sir Alex who lifted the Premier League trophy come the end of the campaign.
Liverpool had missed out on the title, a series of draws costing them dearly. Even beating United 4-1 in mid-March had somehow not been enough.
Benitez had failed to capitalise on their biggest opportunity to be champions for decades. He would not get another opportunity in his remaining time at the club.
Liverpool's best manager in last 20 years was Rafa Benitez. His team was balanced, strong in defence and potent in attack.
— James Claypole (@nicam8) January 21, 2017
Most Liverpool fans would argue until they are red in the face that Rafa Benitez was a success at their club. Some would have you believe he is up there with their legendary managers. There is evidence to back up their assertions too.
The three trophies Liverpool won under his leadership, including the unlikeliest of European successes, should not be overlooked after all. Indeed, to dismiss them would be foolhardy to the maximum.
But there is no escaping the fact he failed in his biggest task. His remit had been to turn the Reds into genuine title contenders once again and on that front, his teams fell short.
That night in Istanbul in 2005 masks what was an overall underwhelming tenure at Anfield. Perhaps in future, Liverpool fans will come to see it that way also.