Rafa BenÝtez in 'Corriere Dello Sport'

The Spanish coach talks about the 'Champions League' match that will face two of his old teams, Inter Milan and Liverpool

15/02/2022Corriere dello Sport/ rafabenitez.com

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The match between Liverpool and Inter has something special for Rafa Benitez. In reality, there’s no doubt that Benitez's heart will be with the 'reds', although he has also left an indubitable legacy at the helm of Inter Milan - despite being at the helm for only six months - in the form of titles like the Italian Supercoppa and the Club World Cup.A month after his dismissal as Everton coach, a taboo subject in this interview, Rafa has spared no effort in talking about everything else. He has told us that he follows the main European championships with his technical ‘staff' and says he is very happy to see the Napoli’s growth, confirming the team’s winning character which appeared during Benitez’s tenure (as seen by the Coppa Italia and the Italian Supercoppa that the Madrid-born coach won) and that is allowing them to fight for the title this season. Rafa Benitez is waiting for the next adventure, maybe in Spain or in any other country. However, in the meantime he is enjoying the return of the Champions League as an interested viewer. Especially for Inter-Liverpool, a match that he surely won’t miss, even if he can only watch it on the tv.

What kind of match do you expect at San Siro this Wednesday between Inter and Liverpool? 

“Two teams with similar stats are facing each other: both in goals scored and in shots on goal and possession. Both are above average in their championship within those areas.  On their side, Liverpool will have the strength and intensity that characterise all Premier League matches; Inter will focus on tactics, which is always the trend in Italy, to try and highlight the shortcomings of their opponents".

Everything indicates that Liverpool are the favourites, but the 'reds' seem more prudent.

"Inter have not reached the round of 16 by chance: they’re a team that always knows what to do and usually takes advantage of the weaknesses of their rivals. Their use of the 3-5-2 system can create difficulties for teams that are not used to facing it. On the other hand, Liverpool use the 4-3-3 offensively, which is based on aggressiveness and intensity, their two best weapons. I do not expect the two to face each other with an inevitable result pending, instead, I think we will see two interesting games in which whoever has control of the ball will prevail. Both teams have the quality and technique necessary to maintain this control of the ball and to make the opponent have to run to recover it."

If it were Inzaghi, would you be worried about the attacking trident of Salah, Firmino or Mané?

"I would be worried about them, of course, but also about Diogo Jota, who always makes the right move to create scoring chances with ease. Liverpool's four attacking players are very good and create lots of dangerous chances. In addition, Liverpool have very good full-backs who can go up to attack and offer some dangerous centres, they are also good at set pieces because they have Van Dijk and Matip as well as a quality midfielder in Fabinho. They can press high and cause difficulties due to their physical abilities coupled with the goal-scoring instinct of the strikers. They also have the ability to retreat a bit further back in order to be more compact and to counterattack with high speed. It's not an easy team to beat."

How much merit does Klopp have in the creation of this Liverpool?

"He's a great coach that I have a good relationship with. I've faced him in the Champions League, with Napoli when he was at at Borussia Dortmund. In the first leg, in San Paolo, we won 2-1. On the second leg, however, we were eliminated and lost the match 3-1 after having managed 12 points in the group stage. I have to remind that the goal against us in the first leg, which was decisive for our elimination, was an own goal by Zúñiga in the 88th minute. If we had won that match 2-0, the story would be totally different.

Do you still remember the Napoli stage fondly?

Of course I carry Napoli in my heart, it's a city where I've been happy, where I still have friends and I've won some titles there. Napoli left me with very beautiful memories and I am delighted to see that they are a candidate for the Scudetto this season. They drew against Inter recently and the team has confirmed that it can beat any opponent, of any size."

What impression have Inter's last matches left on you?

 "They lost to AC Milan because they had about 3 minutes in which they lost control of the game and conceded 2 goals, but they did everything possible to dominate the match, and if they had achieved victory, nobody would’ve been surprised. Sometimes there are strange situations during a match which cannot be predicted, and I think this was the case in the Milanese derby. They got a good draw against Roma and once again showed their solidity on the pitch, as they have done for most of the season. It's a strong and balanced team. A lot of credit goes to my friend Piero Ausilio, who has worked hard with this squad. From time to time we talk and have very friendly talks.

Do you like Inzaghi as a coach?

"A lot, truly. He’s a coach with clear ideas, both when he was coaching Lazio and now at Inter, he looks for getting a goal through decent play. He came after Conte, who’d just won the Scudetto, so it was no easy task for him. But he’s been very good and has managed to find the necessary harmony in the group and to obtain great results."

Inter have scored more goals with different players than Liverpool, although Dzeko and Martinez are the top scorers...

"Inter score goals with more players than their rival because their game involves the whole squad, which is a very positive element. When they propose to play with two strikers, I think Dzeko and Martinez fit perfectly. Edin also always arrives to give room for the offense and to act as an offensive midfielder. Lautaro attacks deeply. They also have full-backs who guarantee the breadth of attack, if necessary: both Perisic and Dumfries are two very good players for that task. Inzaghi has found a good balance in his squad."

What is missing for Martinez to take the last step and become a world-class player?

"He's already playing at a great level and I think he's doing really well. It is true that there are some games where he doesn’t manage to score, but he’s playing at a high-level team and, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, when he has more experience his performance will improve even more."

What memories do you have of your time at Inter?

"I always remember that we managed to win two titles in a few months, and without having the possibility of making signings. It was a very unique situation, which I did not expect at the time of signing the contract, but it is how things were and it is pointless to think of how it could’ve been. What remains is that we won titles, which is the most important thing for fans of a team and for its history."

His relationship with Liverpool runs deeper...

“I spent 6 years of my life at Liverpool, we won 4 titles and played 6 finals. It’s an exceptional and unforgettable experience. Liverpool has become my home, I have many friends there and I have the memory of a team that we helped to grow year after year, with signings like Xabi Alonso, Lucas Leiva, Mascherano, Torres...

You arrived at Liverpool in 2004 and in the first season managed to win the Champions League, in the historic final at Istanbul against AC Milan...

"It was the most exciting and incredible final in the history of the Champions League. You can win the title by beating your opponent 5-0, but it will never be the same as the feelings that we lived through that night, jumping onto the field in the second half three goals behind, whilst listening to all the fans cheering for the team. That strength, that affection that the fans showed us was what was necessary to get back into the game and get the equaliser in just six minutes. Then came the penalties and the rest is history."

It's time for predictions: who will win the Italian championship?

"Inter have shown great regularity, if they continue like this they have a good chance of winning the Scudetto. They’ve already faced tough rivals such as Lazio, Atalanta, AC Milan and Naples at the start of 2022. But Serie A is very balanced right now and both Napoli and AC Milan also have chances."

Who will qualify for the next round of the Champions League, Inter or Liverpool?

"I would say Liverpool have a 51% chance, while Inter have a 49% chance, simply because the Premier League is a stronger league at the moment. But as far as the game’s concerned, I think it's the most balanced showdown in football currently."

Who will win the Champions League?

"There are really spectacular matches in the round of 16, like Real Madrid versus PSG, or Inter versus Liverpool which are interesting, or Atlético de Madrid against Manchester United.... it's a tournament where details make all the difference so I find it impossible to predict what will happen in this year's final."

What is known about Rafa Benitez's future?

"I am watching the matches of the main 4-5 European leagues with my technical staff, and we analyse using the latest technologies and ‘big data’, the new standard for modern football. We want to be prepared for the future. Now I need one or two months to recover, but next season I want to start again, in any tournament where we can compete. Difficulties don't scare me".