Everton fans called him “Rafa Beneath Us”. Even though he won the Champions League in his debut season at Anfield, Liverpool finished fifth behind their city rivals in 2004-05. But he seems to be starting well at Real Madrid and after taking 10 points from four games, Rafa Benitez came through his first tough test on Wednesday.
At the start of the day, Madrid trailed eternal enemies Barcelona by two points in the Primera Division. But with the Catalans facing a difficult trip to Celta Vigo and Madrid away to Athletic Bilbao, Spanish football fans were in for an interesting evening.
Such was Barca’s form in the second half of last season, however, that it looked like Real were more at risk on Wednesday night as they travelled to the notoriously difficult San Mames.
Not so, however: as Barca toiled in Galicia and slid to a desperate 4-1 loss at Balaidos, Madrid stood strong to take all three points against Athletic with a hard-fought 2-1 win.
It was a backs-to-the-wall display at times, but Benitez is a master tactician and relishes a defensive battle. Even without their leader at the back, club captain Sergio Ramos, Real held out in defence thanks in part to a disciplined display from their five-man midfield which broke with the ball but tracked back well without it.
Karim Benzema scored both goals for Real; the first following an awful mistake by Mikel San Jose and the second when he was picked out all alone in the area.
That second strike was crucial because Athletic had drawn level just three minutes earlier, finally finding a way past Keylor Navas as Sabin Merino beat the Costa Rican goalkeeper with an excellent header.
It was the first goal Navas had conceded in 2015-16 and the 28-year-old had been just five minutes away from setting a club record for minutes unbeaten in La Liga that had stood for 40 years and which still belongs to Miguel Angel after his heroics in 1975-76.
Much more important than that, however, is Navas’ fantastic form between the sticks for the club he almost left on transfer deadline day.
“I can’t say if it was fair or unfair,” Navas said of his near-departure in an interview with Cadena Cope prior to this game. “But I wanted my chance.”
Now he has that chance and how he is taking it. Two stunning saves from Aritz Aduriz in the second half allowed Madrid to hang on for all three points and he has made himself a hero at the Santiago Bernabeu already this term.
But it wasn’t only Navas. This was an impressive team performance all round and Benitez was content after the match.
“When we win, I always think that everything we have done is positive,” he said. “We are growing in confidence and this result gives us strength.”
It certainly does and especially after Barca’s surprise loss in Vigo. Mocked by many, disliked by others and even booed by some supporters, Benitez is slowly but surely making his mark at Real. And now it’s Barca who are beneath him.