After terrible performances for both these sides, Benitez moved to Extremadura and had his first successful season as a full-time coach. In 1997, Benitez took Extremadura to the Primera Division of Spanish football. He won 23 of the 42 games that season, ending in second place behind Deportivo Alaves. Howerver, this glory lasted for just one season as Extremadura were relegated the following year and Rafa was out of a job again.
He decided to spend 1999-2000 studying in England and Italy, while also working as an analyst and commentator at times.
In 2000, he was appointed as the manager for CD Tenerife, in the Segunda Division. With Luis Garcia, Mista and Curro Torres in his lineup, Rafa gained promotion to the Primera Division, finishing third in the league behind Sevilla and Real Betis.
The Valencia Days
After Hector Cuper left for Inter Milan, Rafa Benitez was offered the Valencia job. The team was brimming with confidence and had a number of star performers like Santiago Canizares, Ruben Baraja, Roberto Ayala, Vicente, David Albelda and Pablo Aimar.
Rafa’s Valencia was already in place, ready to take on Spain in a massive battle. The team played better football, with Mista and Curro Torres being brought in from his previous team. In 2002, Valencia went on to win the 2001-02 league title, for the first time in 31 years.
The following season, Valencia failed to repeat their dominance, finishing in 5th place. However, it was the first season that Rafa faced the UEFA Champions League music and took Valencia to the quarter finals, before losing out to Inter Milan.
In 2003-04, things were back to normal as Rafa led Valencia to another league title as well as the UEFA Cup final. However, things weren’t going so well in the club’s board room and Rafa was consistently thwarted in his requests for new signings to strengthen the club. Eventually, Rafa resigned as the coach of Valencia.
Benitez moved to England and signed with English giants Liverpool. After persuading Steven Gerard to stay on at the club, he brought in Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso to the English team. With several key players missing in the first season, Rafa struggled to get Liverpool to work. The team finished fifth in the league but did manage to reach the finals of the Carling Cup.
Despite a horrendous start to the UEFA Champions league, Liverpool stuttered their way out of the Group Stage. However, as they continued to move on, things started becoming more interesting for the Spaniard’s team. Having qualified for the knock-out stages through goal difference, Liverpool went on to beat Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus before meeting Chelsea in the semi-finals. Liverpool reached the finals thanks to a controversial goal and faced AC Milan.
The final was all about Liverpool and luck. Having been hammered into a 0-3 scoreline at half-time, the game looked all but over. However, Liverpool came back with 6 minutes of mindblowing football, scoring 3 goals to level the score. Then things returned to normal as Milan started pounding the English goal. However, the post, crossbar and Jerzy Dudek stood firm, keeping scores at 3-3 for the remainder of regulation and extra-time.
Liverpool triumphed over penalties and Benitez became only the third manager after Bob Paisley and Jose Mourinho to win the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Champions League in successive seasons. He also became only the second Liverpool manager to win the Champions League in his debut season.
New signings came in and Benitez was looking likely to continue his good form with Liverpool. The team went on to finish third in the league, missing second place by a single point. They went on to win the FA cup by beating both Manchester United and Chelsea on the way to a final against West Ham United. After losing 0-2 to West Ham, Liverpool came back to tie the game with a dramatic last-minut equalizer by Steven Gerard. Tied at 3-3, the match went into penalties and Pepe Reina, the new number one keeper, saved three shots. Benitez went on to become the first Liverpool manager ever to win all major trophies within his first two seasons at the club.
Liverpool were poor away from home and that meant that 2006-07 was off to a poor start.
Liverpool went on to reach the finals of the UEFA Champions League, again, for the second time in three seasons under Rafa Benitez. They again faced AC Milan who were determined to avenge their defeat from the last final. A smooth 2-1 win for Milan came after Liverpool were outplayed again. There was constant in-fighting between Benitez and the new owners of Liverpool as Benitez kept looking for new funds for transfers that never came.
In 2007-08, Liverpool made a great start to the 2007-08 season, topping the Premier League Table. However, Europe wasn’t going so well as they continued to struggle. Transfer money was becoming a huge issue and numerous public fall-outs ensued, leading to a major standoff between Rafa Benitez and the club’s owners.
After a drab and dry season, Liverpool began 2007-08 with a lot more gusto. For the first time, since 1996, Liverpool finished December at the top of the league table.
Liverpool ended the season in second place, just four points off of Manchester United. In 2009-10, Liverpool’s form dwindled and Rafa Benitez, despite signing a new 5-year deal with the club last season, was on the verge of going out. Alonso moved to Real Madrid and Alberto Aquilani came in at the English side.
Some poor media handling and brash statements led to Benitez’s fame dropping in the eyes of fans, players and the board. An early exit from the UEFA Champions League was followed by the club’s worst run in 22 years. They were eventually eliminated by Atletico Madrid in the Europa Cup, having qualified for it by finishing third in their UEFA Champions League group.
Benitez was fired by Liverpool, ending an almost decade long stint at the English team.
In June 2010, 7 days after leaving Liverpool, Rafa Benitez signed as the new manager at Inter Milan, following Jose Mourinho’s departure to Real Madrid.