After an ultimately comfortable win over Marseille, Arsenal sit within touching distance of the knockout stages of the Champions League. All that stands between them and a 14th consecutive season in the latter stages of the competition is one man: Rafael Benitez.
Rafa Benitez: the man who took Liverpool to one glorious Champions League triumph and to the final of another. The man who brought the good times back to Anfield, who added an FA Cup and European Super Cup to their extraordinary win over AC Milan in 2005.
Benitez thrived on the big European nights on Merseyside. As Liverpool manager, he masterminded victories over – among others – Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and, perhaps most memorably, Chelsea, in two mammoth European semi-finals.
The Spaniard revelled in the knife-edge nature of key European games. An outstanding tactician, he out-thought and out-manoeuvred his opposition like a general on the battlefield. His sides were methodical, patient, and, when the needed to be, ruthless. Liverpool have fallen a long, long way since he departed.
So Benitez will relish the situation facing Napoli in the final round of games in Group F of this season’s Champions League. After a 3-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, the Serie A side must defeat Wenger’s Arsenal if they are to progress to the last 16.
It is an all-or-nothing clash for Benitez. Wenger has only to avoid a 3-0 defeat.
Yet despite Benitez’s once fearsome reputation, Napoli should hold little fear for the Gunners. Arsenal have, of course, already beaten Benitez’s side once this season, playing Napoli off the pitch in a 2-0 win at the Emirates thanks to Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud.
Indeed, since he left Liverpool, Benitez’s Champions League record has been less impressive. At Inter Milan, his side were beaten 3-1 by Tottenham at White Hart Lane, before he was sacked for poor results. At Chelsea last season, he failed to lead the Blues out of their group, although, admittedly, much of that damage came under his predecessor Roberto Di Matteo.
His tactics this season have been questioned, particularly in the light of his team’s recent 3-0 defeat to rivals Juventus, and their 3-1 loss to Dortmund did little to ease the pressure.
Wenger’s record against Benitez is impressive. In 17 clashes between the two managers between 2004 and 2010, Wenger triumphed on eight occasions, with Benitez winning only four times. The Gunners failed to score only once: a 1-0 league defeat in February 2006.
Both managers will recall the Champions League quarter-final of 2008, when Liverpool needed two late goals at Anfield to win 4-2 in a dramatic quarter-final second leg.
But those days seem a long time ago for Benitez, and Wenger will take his side to Italy knowing that only a catastrophe will prevent his side from progressing.
Benitez will have to produce some of his old magic if he is to pull off another great European result.
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