Champions League

Benitez faces uphill challenge

2015-08-18 09:52
(File, AP)

Madrid - When a visibly nervous Real Madrid president Florentino Perez was grilled by the media after sacking Carlo Ancelotti in May he comically responded that he "didn't know" where the Italian had failed in his two years in charge.

Ancelotti delivered the coveted "La Decima", the club's 10th European Cup, and three other trophies but his inability to win a major title last season proved fatal to his chances of remaining in the hot seat at the Bernabeu.

The scepticism over Ancelotti's dismissal was only aggravated by the appointment of Rafael Benitez as his successor.

Benitez is undoubtedly a Madrid man. It is where he started a playing career curtailed by injury and as a coach, he ended up as assistant coach of the senior team, before going on to greater things at Valencia and Liverpool.

Yet, the concern raised by his arrival is that Benitez hasn't won a league title with four clubs in three different leagues since he left Spanish shores with Valencia 11 years ago.

Moreover, to do so now, the 55-year-old must overcome a Barcelona side fresh from winning the treble and win over a dressing room full of superstars who weren't keen to see Ancelotti go.

Despite Perez's uncertainty, the one area where blame could be clearly pointed at Ancelotti last season was failing to adequately rotate his squad as Los Blancos tore through the autumn on a 22-match winning run.

As a consequence in a season coming hard on the back of the World Cup, Madrid were clearly the more physically drained come the second half of the season as Barca got stronger.

Benitez was often ridiculed for his constant tinkering when in charge of Liverpool, but he can't be accused of not using all the resources available to him.

And those resources are far greater at the Bernabeu than any of the stops on his journey as a coach so far.

"Undoubtedly this is the highest quality squad I have coached," he said on the day he was presented to the media.

Perez has unusually resisted from making a major splash in the transfer market. Instead Benitez's squad has been bolstered by a host of young players returning from loan spells.

The likes of Denis Cheryshev, Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez will offer plenty of hunger and dynamism as well as giving their more esteemed colleagues the rest time needed to ensure there isn't a repeat of last season's collapse in the final months of the campaign.

Yet, two of the other major issues faced by Ancelotti remain unresolved.

Firstly, despite Iker Casillas finally departing the club after 18 years, a question remains over who will start in goal.

Kiko Casilla was signed days after Casillas's move to Porto to challenge Keylor Navas to be number one, but Madrid are still expected to try and land Manchester United's David de Gea before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Benitez also has to find a way to get the best out of an under-performing Gareth Bale in what is expected to be a make or break season for the Welshman.

Bale has made clear his intention to play through the middle this season rather than from the right as he has in his first two campaigns in the Spanish capital.

"It's my best position," Bale said after downing former club Tottenham in a pre-season friendly.

"When I played for Tottenham, I felt I played my best football there and when I play for Wales, I play there and play my best football. For me, that's my position and it's where I want to play."

Insisting on playing in the role with most competition for places is only likely to pile the pressure on Bale even more, especially with patience among the Madrid support already tested after such a disappointing campaign.

It is also a virtue Benitez knows won't be bestowed upon him unless he wins La Liga or the Champions League.

"I grew up in Madrid. I understand the expectations and I accept them," he told El Pais on Monday.

For Bale and Benitez there is no room for error this season.

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