NEW YORK -- By the time Rafael Benitez's six-year tenure as manager at Liverpool drew to a close this summer, it was clear to longtime observers that he was a changed man from the once quietly confident Spaniard who had first walked through the doors at Anfield. Appearing visibly stressed at times, the constant political infighting with the club's board and the continuous criticism from sections of the English media seemed to have finally taken its toll. When he succeeded Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan in June, one wondered if he would have been best served taking a year off and recharging instead.
And yet, in New York City last Thursday when Inter unveiled its new kit at Niketown for the upcoming season, the Benitez I met couldn't have been more different. Relaxed, beaming and happily settled into his new job and life in Milan, Benitez looked comfortable in his new role and excited to start anew. But when asked how he and his family were adjusting to life in Italy, there was still clearly a touch of melancholy about his time on Merseyside.
"They are still in England and so they still have time," he said. "We are looking around for a house [in Milan]. We're from Spain so I think we'll be OK [with the adjustment to Italy], but we were really happy in Liverpool, really pleased, but they think Milan will be a nice city.
"I am sure we will go [to Merseyside] on holidays, but I'd like to stay for a long time with Inter, which will mean that maybe we'll be successful. But we still have our house in England since we were really happy and the family were settled down there really well."
At Inter, Benitez couldn't have chosen a harder act to follow. Coming off a two-year span under Mourinho, the Nerazzurri have swept all before them, culminating in last season's spectacular treble. In a sense, you have to wonder if Benitez isn't setting himself up in a lose-lose situation. Win the treble again and he'll have merely matched Mourinho's achievements with what would be considered largely Mourinho's players. Anything less and he'll have fallen short, or even worse, perceived to have failed. However, Benitez doesn't seem concerned with the Mourinho comparisons.
"You have to also give credit to the players, because for years they had been winning already," Benitez said. "They were winning with [Roberto] Mancini, they were winning with Mourinho, so credit to them. We have the majority of players still, so if we can keep winning, for me it means that, yes, the club is strong enough. It's not talking about if you win, it was [solely because of] the manager or the coach. The players will play a key part in this situation."
Although the personnel remains largely the same (minus a couple of potential moves this week that could see forward Mario Balotelli leave the club, and the possible arrival of defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano from Liverpool for a fee in the $35 million range), expect Benitez to make some minor tweaks to the Inter system. It's still uncertain if he'll adopt his favored 4-2-3-1 formation, but it's clear that he wants to improve Inter's ability to retain the ball.
"The team is a good team, that is obvious, everyone knows this," he said. "The way that they played last season was good for them because they were winning. Talking with the players, speaking with a lot of people around the club, maybe we can improve a little bit on things and keep the things they were doing well. Part of this idea will be to have more possession if we can, so we will try."
As for former club Liverpool, there's no doubt that it retains a place in Benitez's heart, even after his acrimonious departure. On his way out, Benitez wished the team well and mentioned that he wasn't surprised to see star striker Fernando Torres re-commit to at least the upcoming campaign, but did note that "I was speaking with Fernando before and I know he wanted to win trophies and he wanted to play in the Champions League, so it was a difficult situation for him."
Here are a few other things I'm thinking about this Monday morning:
1. What next for Freddy Adu? With Swiss club Sion recently passing on the chance to sign him, Adu appears to be running out of options to resurrect his floundering career in Europe. To be fair to Adu, Sion didn't seem to be the right fit for him since it's actually looking for a striker, something that Adu clearly is not. That said, when a team in a lower-tier league that has a short window to sign someone (Sion's one-year UEFA ban on transfers goes into effect in January 2011) passes on you, it doesn't exactly bode well. Benfica remains keen to offload Adu, but after having failed to establish himself in the Greek league, and having been rejected by Sion, Adu's European market value is at an all-time low.
At this point, Adu is probably best served coming back to MLS, earning some regular playing time, improving his game and possibly getting back into the U.S. national team picture. Whether any MLS team would be interested enough in him (he didn't exactly set the league on fire the first time around) to pony up the type of money that Adu is presumably looking for is another question. Granted, some MLS executives probably feel that Adu would still provide a solid draw for the U.S. audience, but how much they'd be willing to pay for that is debatable. On top of that, will Adu realize a return to MLS is in his best interests? Several players and executives I've spoken with in the past have always maintained that Adu's lack of maturity has also been a factor in holding him back.
2. Thierry Henry's MLS debut. Henry was understandably rusty and far from sharp in his league debut against the Dynamo on Saturday, but even a subpar Henry proved to be a difference-maker with two assists to help the Red Bulls to a 2-2 draw. Despite missing a couple of chances he'd normally snap up with ease, it's clear that Henry's technique, positioning and soccer IQ are on a far different level to most players in MLS. Fellow forward Juan Pablo Angel remarked afterward that it'd been a long time since he'd played with someone of such ability (and probably not since his days at River Plate).
There's no question that Henry is the best player signed by MLS, and if he avoids injury, he is destined to have a huge impact in the States. Let's not forget that he's a little more than a year (in non-soccer calendar terms) removed from recording 26 goals and 12 assists in a single season (2008-09) for Barcelona, at a time when he'd already lost that yard of pace that was such a trademark during his Arsenal days and adjusted his game accordingly.
3. The MLS All-Star game. Granted, the final score of 5-2 was somewhat of an embarrassment to MLS, but this is Manchester United we're talking about. To any sensible observer, MLS was never going to be favored in this game, not even against a less-than-full strength United. After all, some of the All-Stars such as Landon Donovan were involved in CONCACAF Champions League action the night before and the team as a whole had barely had any practice time before facing Sir Alex Ferguson's men. Speaking of the Champions League, the Galaxy's 4-1 home loss to the Puerto Rico Islanders should be far more worrisome to MLS fans and executives. If MLS is going to get the full respect it covets, its teams need to start going deep in the Champions League and winning the trophy at some point -- or at least presenting a viable threat to do so.
4. Chicharito is a bona fide hit. Based on both what I've seen on the field and been told, Javier Hernandez has been turning heads at United, impressing both teammates and Ferguson alike with his pace, finishing and natural instincts. He's clearly going to put to rest any skepticism by those who thought his signing was partly brand-related for United to break into the Mexico market, and at $11 million, he was an absolute bargain. In fact, Ferguson sees Hernandez developing at a minimum into an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-type performer this season, if not an eventual partner for Wayne Rooney. Of greater concern to the U.S. is the fact that a Mexico front line of Hernandez flanked by Gio dos Santos, Carlos Vela and/or Andres Guardado looks downright scary.