Shanghai (AFP) – Rafael Benitez won the Champions League with Liverpool and coached Real Madrid, but the scale of the task he confronts in China was laid bare this week in humiliating fashion.
The highly regarded Spaniard suffered one of the heaviest defeats of his managerial career when Dalian Yifang were thrashed 5-1 on Wednesday in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
Going into Sunday’s final day of the season, Dalian are 10th of 16 teams, the same position as when Benitez took over in July.
They have won once in their last nine matches in all competitions.
“This is a game that I don’t quite understand,” an angry Benitez said following the heavy loss at relegation-threatened Tianjin Tianhai, accusing his players of giving up.
Benitez, who has also managed Valencia, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Newcastle United, enjoyed a good start at Dalian but results have tailed off markedly.
The 59-year-old, who is constantly linked with a return to the English Premier League, averages 1.31 points from his 16 games in China, according to transfermarkt.com.
That is his poorest return since he was in charge at CF Extremadura in Spain 20 years ago, near the start of his managerial career.
Benitez, who took Liverpool to the Champions League title in 2005, looked “helpless and frustrated” after Tianjin’s fifth goal, Soccer News said.
Fans and Dalian’s owners, the conglomerate Wanda Group, were entitled to expect better from a team that includes Salomon Rondon, Yannick Carrasco and Marek Hamsik, the publication added.
“If Dalian… want to talk about rejuvenation and rebuilding glory, it is almost a fantasy,” Soccer News said, labelling the Tianjin defeat “tragic”.
The Dalian Evening News pointed the finger at Benitez’s players and questioned their ability and attitude.
– Lure of the Premier League –
Dalian fans appreciate that Benitez — who is on huge wages of $16 million a year — has been brought in to revamp the club, and are prepared to give him time.
They lay the blame for the underwhelming results, especially in recent matches, on the players easing up with nothing to play for.
“Benitez’s arrival brought hope,” said Cui Yuanchen, a Dalian fan for two decades.
“Wanda’s youth training tends to be Hispanic (in system and style) and Benitez brought the Spanish model from youth training to the first team, which is what Dalian Yifang football fans want to see.
“The team was also aging so in recent matches Benitez was using many younger players.”
Benitez last week gave a series of interviews to British media and admitted that his wife Montse wants him to return to the Premier League.
It seems inevitable that the Spaniard will one day do so and his mini media campaign suggests that he wants to stay in the shop window in England.
Several Premier League managers — Manuel Pellegrini at West Ham United, Unai Emery at Arsenal and Marco Silva at Everton — are on shaky ground. Benitez’s name is never far away.
But he told reporters that he relishes the rebuilding “project” at Dalian and is enjoying life in northeast China.
Cui, who has a football account on the Twitter-like Weibo with more than 16,000 followers, is confident that Benitez will still be there next season, despite the underwhelming start and Premier League interest.
“He’s dedicated to his work and is professional,” Cui said.
“I’m satisfied with the job Benitez is doing.”
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