Benitez’s frustrations grow after Real’s missed chance vs. Atletico
Rafa Benitez would have heard some sirens well before kickoff of his first Madrid derby as Real’s head coach. Police amplifiers are always part of the soundtrack at this fixture, usually just precautionary, there to remind the followers of home and away sides that the edge and the aggression that surround La Liga’s main capital collision are being monitored.
Benitez heard other sirens, too, because, as chance would have it, the club where he is perhaps most appreciated as a manager dismissed one of his successors earlier in the day. Benitez keeps a home in Merseyside, north-west England, where he guided Liverpool to a triumph in the UEFA Champions League a decade ago. For that, and for other things, Benitez left a legacy of fondness among supporters that other Liverpool managers since have struggled to match, the last being Brendan Rodgers, who lost his job less than two months into the new season on Sunday.
Time was that Benitez would have been asked, with some popular backing from Liverpool fans, to take over instead. He has had periods of availability in the five years since he left Liverpool. But Benitez now finds himself in the most challenging, but most exciting post of his career: He is not available because he is engaged in his present position at Real Madrid. He has never, not at Liverpool, nor Internazionale or Napoli, or Valencia, been in command of such a talented group of footballers as Real Madrid’s right now. And for over 70 minutes on matchday seven of his debut season in charge of the Real he supported as a boy, played for at junior level and learned his coaching at in the youth system, he had them top of La Liga.
They sit second, going into the international break, which will be a source of frustration for Benitez, given the circumstances. Everything else this weekend had worked out nicely for Real Madrid. Barcelona lost to Sevilla, 2-1, on Saturday, a second league loss already for the defending Spanish champions. Although they hit the frame of the Sevilla goal four times, Barca showed a slackness in defense that has now become uncomfortably frequent for the Catalan club. The missing Lionel Messi, out injured until late November, casts an ever longer shadow when they encounter setbacks like this.
Villarreal also lost to Levante, so the surprise early leaders of the Primera Division were there to be leapfrogged at the summit. To do, Benitez would have needed to buck a precedent: Real had not triumphed in their last six encounters against Atletico in domestic competition. Benitez’s predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti, burdened by that sequence, managed wins against the local rivals in Europe notable in the Champions League final of 2014 and Champions League quarterfinal last season.
Madridistas are unsure yet on how to regard Benitez. Certainly, he has yet to earn the raucous affection, in numbers, and with noise, that he had at Liverpool for several seasons. The notion he is instinctively cautious, suspicious of too much panache at the expense of pragmatism, is a hard one to shake. Reall have produced some gluttonous scorelines already, two fixtures of his first six in La Liga were goalless draws.
Jose Mourinho, the longest serving Real Madrid coach of the last decade, once offered a piece of advice to any man taking over that perilous job: To make a good early impression, he said, you must break one of the club’s bad habits. In Mourinho’s case, he took over a team who had serially failed, for a number of years, to go beyond the last 16-phase of the UEFA Champions League. Mourinho, in three seasons there, reached three semifinals in that competition. He had broken a glass ceiling, even if the last-four stage came to represent a new, exasperating barrier.
Benitez would be reluctant, because of their history of antagonism, to take advice from Mourinho. Yet the message is a sound one: Real are in an awkward run in local derbies. They find the rugged Atletico of Diego Simeone hard to overcome in La Liga. Yet this weekend, Atletico seemed ripe for the taking. They had lost twice in two matches in the previous eight days.
Benitez’s Real thought they had broken them. After eight minutes, Karim Benzema’s header, expertly guiding a Dani Carvajal cross, put Real ahead. Keylor Navas then saved a penalty from Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann. Real took control of possession from there, and although the spectacle was often turgid, Real could smell three points, and an end to the La Liga jinx against Atletico that had bugged Mourinho and Ancelotti over the past three years.
The jinx then came back, with a cobra’s spit. Eight minutes from full time, Atletico struck, and, in what will be taken as a measure of Simeone’s astute tactical nous, a pair of substitutes combined for the equalizing goal as Jackson Martinez provide the needed cross for Luciano Vietto to finish. The 1-1 score kept Atletico’s solid derby record in tact. And it kept Real off the top of the table.
Inevitably, Benitez faced criticism for being too conservative. Real had seemed to protect too cautiously their narrow lead, hadn’t they? "We went for the win throughout the first half," Benitez argued after the draw. Atletico’s manager disagreed.
”We finished with a goal and a great save by their goalie,” Atletico manager Diego Simeone. ”The sensation is that we lost two points because we were closer than they were to the win as far as scoring chances go.”
In truth, Madridistas will always want Benitez to chase the win at all costs no matter the score. As he learned on Sunday, his aggressiveness will be judged from the first minute to the last.