Rafa Benitez, often revered by the red half of Liverpool for his “Miracle Of Istanbul” 2005 Champions League wonder victory over A.C Milan, has joined forces with his old club's arch-enemy, much to the horror and disbelief of Liverpudlians in both red, and blue.
And given the stellar start to the season of his new Everton side, it`s maybe even just as amazing that the Everton faithful are starting to feel the love for Rafa as well.
They Say Never Go Back
Given the fierce rivalry of the two Liverpool giants, eyebrows were inevitably raised when Benitez returned to the city of many of his finest triumphs, after all, why risk his hero status on the Liverpool Kop by joining their hated rivals?
Everton themselves, the fans especially, were hardly glowing with excitement at the prospect, the only thing they usually share between Everton and Liverpool is a raging dislike!
After being unable to halt their relegation in 2016/17 Rafa had done a solid if an unremarkable job in getting Newcastle back to the Premier League, subsequently leaving for Chinese club Dallan Professional in 2019.
Leaving his Chinese employers behind in January of 2021, Benitez was subsequently unveiled at Everton in June of this year. It was unlikely he was going to get a better offer, and having a soft spot for the people of Liverpool, Benitez himself once declaring that his daughters were Scousers, the lure or a return may simply have been impossible to turn down.
Why take the risk?
Well, in all honesty, was it such a risk for Rafa? Everton is a well-run club, they have a new stadium in the pipeline, with plans to move in for the 2024/25 season.
The core of the squad is good, with a solid spine though the middle; England no.1 Jordan Pickford between the posts, Mason Holgate and Michael Keane in central defence, a good engine in midfield in Abdoulaye Doucoure, pacy wingers in Demarai Grey and Richarlison, and a proven goal-scorer up front in Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Everton have the makings of a top 6 team.
Indeed, Demarai Grey is rapidly turning into a superb addition to the squad, having scored in three of the first four games of the new premiership season, and at a bargain price of €2 million is another feather in Benitez` transfer cap.
The Toffees fans have slowly begun to warm to Benitez, 10 points out of 12 in the league certainly not harm to cheer the Everton faithful.
One blip in the road, however, is the potential issue with Colombian forward James Rodriquez, the £28.8 million purchase from Real Madrid. A superb player on his day, Rodriquez had a blistering start to his Everton career last season but tailed off dramatically as the season progressed.
Having worked with each other at the Bernabéu in Madrid, with Benitez often leaving Rodriquez out of the squad, the feeling at Goodison Park is that the Colombian Internationals’ days are numbered.
But with the transfer window now closed, and given that on his day, Rodriguez is a game-changing attacking threat, if Rafa can mend bridges and rediscover the player that first arrived, Everton could be a real force this season.
And having played all four games, with a goal to his name, perhaps there are signs of a rejuvenated James Rodriguez slowly coming back to his best. Opposition defenders beware…
The Everton fixture list has also been kind, with upcoming games at Aston Villa and Norwich, they could potentially see themselves high in the league before a visit from Manchester United, and that man Cristiano Ronaldo, really tests the Toffees mettle.
So as you can see, Benitez must have seen real potential in taking the reins at Goodison Park, his close ties with Liverpool, and the potential for souring the mutual love and affection notwithstanding, the positives far outweighed the negatives for the Spaniard.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
This. Is. Everton. And as all Evertonians know, if there is a way to self-destruct, Everton will usually find a way.
With no silverware since the F.A Cup in 1995 and a penchant for crumbling under pressure, the fans are justifiably wary of getting ahead of themselves.
Last season is a prime example, a great start under Carlo Ancelotti, James Rodriguez playing out of his skin, Calvert-Lewin scoring for fun, life was looking good. A top 6 finish looked inevitable, Europe beckoned!
And then, it didn't. Rodriguez floundered, Calvert-Lewin got injured, Everton dropped point after point and blew it.
12 goals and 12 points from their opening 4 games of last season, and then a creditable 2-2 draw with their arch-rivals Liverpool, the team were playing superb football under the experienced eye of Carlo Ancelotti, several good runs were put together, hope, it seemed, had returned to the blue half of Liverpool.
But 12 points from their last 12 games, including only three wins, effectively destroyed any hope of Europe, Everton eventually finishing 10th. Not terrible, but given the outlay on players over the previous few seasons, not good enough, and more worryingly, not good enough to keep Ancelotti, who made good his escape back to Real Madrid.
In Rafa We Trust?
And here we are, another season, another Everton?. Another good start to the season, new signings and old seem to be knitting together well.
The monopoly money spending of yesteryear seems to be over, but when you are spending €2 million on players such as Demarai Grey, and they are immediately impacting results, who needs to spend £30 million?
Hopes are rising for the fans of Everton FC, but as all Evertonians know, the higher you climb, the further you have to fall.
Here`s hoping Rafa made the right choice.
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