DAVID SHONFIELD: Europe’s hottest seat too much for Rafa Benitez

Football management has always been a precarious business, but never more so than now.

First Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti; then José Mourinho; now Rafa Benitez.

This is supposed to be the time of year when clubs review their playing resources. Instead we are seeing a major spin on the managerial merry-go-round, although merry-go-round doesn’t really describe it.

It is more like a game of musical chairs than a carousel: managers move around and when the music stops some are left looking in vain to find a seat that’s unoccupied.

Pep is of course still in post in Munich and Carlo is still enjoying his sabbatical. But it is unprecedented to see so many big moves in mid-season and there could be more to come.

Europe’s hottest seat too much for Rafa Benitez

Louis van Gaal’s position at Old Trafford remains in serious doubt. Roma manager Rudi Garcia is in the awkward position of knowing that his American boss James Palotta is actively seeking to replace him, even though Mourinho turned the job down.

Looking further ahead, Manuel Pellegrini will, presumably, be on his way in the summer, if not before and both Didier Deschamps and Antonio Conte will almost certainly be available after the European finals. The big losers in this game appear to be Benitez and Mourinho, currently at least.

Benitez truly was on a hiding to nothing at Real Madrid: his dream job, but a poisoned chalice. He arrived with people questioning his record at Napoli, and although early results went his way, they were achieved against La Liga’s cannon fodder teams.

Moreover Ancelotti was a popular figure with fans and players alike, and it always seemed likely that Rafa would face antagonism from Cristiano Ronaldo. And Zinedine Zidane, the biggest galactico in the Madrid universe, was obviously being groomed to take over.

The writing was on the wall two weeks ago, and in big letters as well, when club president Florentino Perez announced that Zidane “will be a great coach and he will coach Real Madrid”.

“We wake up each morning spurred on in our quest to add to our legend,” he told fans in the club’s Christmas video, “and nothing matters more in this regard than standing united, that is what will make us even greater and stronger”. You could almost hear the knives being sharpened in the background.

Europe’s hottest seat too much for Rafa Benitez

Mourinho meanwhile is in a dilemma. He no doubt has job offers, but for the first time, his future is not guaranteed. The circumstances of his departure from Chelsea make him damaged goods. The reaction in Italy was telling. He may have won the treble with Inter, but there was barely a single Italian player involved, in total contrast with Juventus. And Italian football journalists have never been overly fond of him since the incident back in December 2009 when Mourinho launched a verbal assault on one of their number which ended with fines totalling €33,000.

For their New Year issue the Gazzetta dello Sport’ produced a graphic version of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ with Mourinho in Malebolge, the Eighth Circle of Hell, in the ditch reserved for “schismatics and sowers of discord”.

Will this managerial turmoil have a wider impact? The transfer window opened yesterday with little indication of major moves. Agents and clubs talk a lot at this time of year, but with the Euros coming up, this is not a good moment for top players to switch clubs.

Europe’s hottest seat too much for Rafa Benitez

The players who might move now are most likely to be those like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Borussia Dortmund striker, who are not involved in the Euros and have Champions League ambitions. Otherwise, clubs are likely to seek to reinforce their squads with players they know will fit in.

Atletico Madrid for example have just signed Augusto Fernandez, an Argentinian midfielder, from Celta Vigo. He’s a player that Atletico manager Diego Simeone knows from way back, when he was at River Plate.

Any more serious negotiations are more likely to focus on moves at the end of the season, particularly as a big tournament always tends to push up the cost of players. Always assuming that Florentino Perez doesn’t splash the cash to celebrate Zidane taking over.


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