WHEN Rafa Benitez emerges from the tunnel at Anfield on Sunday, the Spaniard will be afforded the warmest of receptions.
The Kop always pay homage to those who have contributed to Liverpool Football Club’s rich history but this will be different.
For the first time since Benitez’s six-year reign was ended in June 2010, he will return as a rival boss.
There will be the unlikely sight of a Chelsea manager being lauded on Merseyside, while his own supporters treat him with a mixture of apathy and contempt.
Emotions will be running high – both on the touchline and in the stands.
Few are able to stir feelings quite like Benitez does.
There will be those among the home fans wishing that Benitez was turning right rather than left at the end of the tunnel.
They will passionately argue that the man who led Liverpool to their fifth European Cup in 2005 is a tactical mastermind whose services should never have been dispensed with.
The argument goes that his tenure went downhill due to circumstances beyond his control as the deeply damaging ownership of American duo Tom Hicks and George Gillett took its toll. That Benitez was simply a victim in Anfield’s civil war.
However, there will be many in attendance on Sunday who admire and respect what he did for Liverpool but view his Anfield demise as being largely self-inflicted – the result of mistakes in the transfer market and spending too much time picking fights he couldn’t win.
When Benitez ended his two-year sabbatical and became Chelsea’s interim boss last November, the reaction among Kopites was contrasting. While some were devastated by his choice of destination in the belief the Londoners had struck gold, others had a chuckle at the prospect of a bizarre marriage of convenience going badly wrong.
Benitez polarises opinion like no other. Bizarrely, there is no middle ground.
His first season at Anfield following his arrival from Valencia, where he had clinched two La Liga titles and the UEFA Cup, was a case in point.
Liverpool lost 11 of their 19 away league games en route to finishing fifth and were dumped out of the FA Cup by Burnley.
Yet their European adventure led all the way to Champions League glory on an miraculous evening in Istanbul.
It was Benitez who inspired the most dramatic fightback in football history as a 3-0 half-time deficit was wiped out against mighty Milan.
He turned a team boasting Djimi Traore, Djibril Cisse, Harry Kewell and Milan Baros into champions of Europe.
On the night the club’s 21-year wait to lift ‘old big ears’ was ended, an unbreakable bond with Kopites was formed. He had given a generation brought up on tales of Rome and Paris a wonderful story of their own.
The European Super Cup was swiftly added to the trophy collection and in the tactical battles of continental action, Benitez excelled. His attention to detail ensured Liverpool were always prepared for whoever lay in wait.
Chelsea were often on the receiving end. The spine-tingling 2005 and 2007 semi-final triumphs entered Anfield folklore.
The Reds became feared across the continent. There were cherished wins in the Camp Nou, Bernabeu and San Siro.
It was after defeat to Milan in the 2007 final in Athens that the first cracks appeared. Benitez had been due to meet Hicks and Gillett to discuss summer transfer plans but instead the pair flew straight back across the Atlantic.
“I’m tired of talking,” he said, delivering his first attack on the owners. “We talk but we never finish, I want things to be done.”
The Americans responded by lining up Jurgen Klinsmann as his replacement, but Benitez was unsackable. That was demonstrated by the show of solidarity from the thousands of fans who marched to matches at Anfield chanting ‘Rafa is a Scouser’ and ‘Rafa’s going nowhere’.
The power struggles were constant. With the owners, with chief executive Rick Parry and with his successor Christian Purslow.
Benitez lost his trusted assistant Paco Ayesteran after falling out with him and threatened to quit in 2008 after the board refused to sanction the transfer of Gareth Barry from Aston Villa.
His willingness to sell Xabi Alonso in order to buy Barry alienated the midfielder, culminating in his departure to Real Madrid a year later.
Benitez’s man-management skills were frequently questioned. Fernando Torres wrote in his autobiography that he was congratulated by him the day after the birth of his daughter, only to realise he was in fact being praised for attacking the near post. It’s an anecdote Benitez denies.
Steven Gerrard joked after his stunning display in the 2006 FA Cup final victory over West Ham that it still wasn’t enough to get a ‘well done’ from Benitez.
His style was always to demand more, to drive them on to greater heights but some regarded his approach as cold.
In the transfer market his record was mixed. The likes of Alonso, Torres, Javier Mascherano, Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt, Lucas Leiva and Martin Skrtel were wise investments and are used to illustrate Benitez’s eye for a player. Others will issue a retort with the mention of flops such as Andriy Voronin, Antonio Nunez, Jan Kromkamp, Nabil El Zhar, Philipp Degen, Robbie Keane, Andrea Dossena and Alberto Aquilani.
There’s no doubt that Benitez had to take risks because of the crippling interest payments on the club’s debts which hampered his spending power.
But splashing out £17million on an injured Aquilani who hadn’t kicked a ball for six months made no sense. It was a costly error in the summer of 2009.
From producing Liverpool’s most credible title challenge for two decades when they finished second to Manchester United in 2008/9, the wheels came off spectacularly.
The infighting intensified and key players became disillusioned. Benitez stood accused of taking his eye off the ball.
The Reds slumped to seventh and Rafa was gone. His last four years had been trophyless but the feeling remained that he had been shown the door in order to smoothen the sale process.
His final act, donating £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group, was a touch of class.
Three years on, Wirral remains home for Benitez and his family, and his burning desire to manage Liverpool once again is no secret.
Yet the fact that owners Fenway Sports Group didn’t even consider him as a candidate prior to appointing Brendan Rodgers last summer spoke volumes. There was too much baggage.
On Sunday, Anfield will welcome back an old friend. A genius who was wrongly dismissed or a divisive coach who paid the price for his own mistakes?
The truth is somewhere in between.
Josemi Rey Malaga £2m, Antonio Nunez Real Madrid £1.5m, Xabi Alonso Real Sociedad £10.7m, luis Garcia Barcelona £6m, Mauricio Pellegrino Valencia Free, Fernando Morientes Real Madrid £6.3m, Scott Carson Leeds United £1m, Bolo Zenden Free Transfer, Pepe Reina Villareal £6m, Antonio Barragan Sevilla £240,000, Momo Sissoko Valencia £5.6m, Peter Crouch Southampton £7m, Miki Roque Lleida undisclosed, Jack Hobbs Lincoln City £750,000, Besian Idrizaj LASK Linz £190,000, Mark Gonzalez Albacete £1.5m, Paul Anderson Hull City Exchange, Jan Kromkamp Villareal Exchange, David Martin MK Dons £250,000, Daniel Agger Brøndby £5.8m, Robbie Fowler Manchester City Free, Craig Bellamy Blackburn Rovers £6m, Gabriel Paletta Banfield £2m, Fábio Aurélio Free Transfer, Jermaine Pennant Birmingham City £6.7m, Dirk Kuyt Feyenoord £9m, Nabil El Zhar Saint-Étienne £200,000, Astrit Ajdarevic Falkenberg £750,000, Daniele Padelli Sampdoria Loan, Jordy Brouwer Ajax Undisclosed, Francisco Durán Malaga £66,000, Álvaro Arbeloa Deportivo £2.5m, Lucas Leiva Gremio £5m, Krisztián Németh MTK Hungaria Undisclosed, Mikel Domínguez Athletic Bilbao £270,000, Sebastian Leto Club Atlético Lanús £1.8m, Fernando Torres Atletico Madrid £20.2m, Andriy Voronin Free Transfer, Yossi Benayoun West Ham United £5m, Ryan Babel Ajax £11.5m, Charles Itandje Lens Undisclosed, Emiliano Insúa Boca Juniors £1.6m, Lauri Dalla Valle JIPPO £600,000, Martin Skrtel FC Zenit £6.5m, Javier Mascherano GSA & MSL £18.6m, Philipp Degen Free Transfer, Andrea Dossena Udinese £7m, Diego Cavalieri Palmeiras £3.5m, David N’Gog Paris St Germain £1.5m, Robbie Keane Tottenham £19m, Albert Riera Espanyol £8m, Glen Johnson Portsmouth £17.5m, Alberto Aquilani Roma £17.1m, Sotirios Kyrgiakos AEK Athens £2m, Daniel Ayala Sevilla £160,000, Maxi Rodriguez Atletico Madrid Free, Raheem Sterling QPR £500,000, Jonjo Shelvey Charlton Athletic £1.7m, Milan Jovanovic Standard Liege Free.
Markus Babbel VfB Stuttgart Free, Danny Murphy Charlton Athletic £2.5m, Michael Owen Real Madrid £8.5m, Stephane Henchoz Celtic Free, Vladimir Smicer Bordeaux Free, El Hadji Diouf Bolton Wanderers £3.5m, Mauricio Pellegrino Alaves Free, Alou Diarra Lens £2m, Igor Biscan Free Transfer, Jon Otsemobor Rotherham United Free, Mark Smyth Free Transfer, Paul Harrison Free Transfer, Richie Partridge Free Transfer, Patrice Luzi Free Transfer, Gregory Vignal Portsmouth Free, Antonio Nunez Celta Vigo £2m, Milan Baros Aston Villa £6.5m, John Welsh Hull City Player Exchange, Josemi Rey Villareal Player Exchange, Zak Whitbread Millwall £200,000, Bruno Cheyrou Rennes Undisclosed, Robbie Foy Free Transfer, David Raven Carlisle United Undisclosed, Fernando Morientes Valencia £3m, Didi Hamann Bolton Wanderers Free, Antonio Barragan Deportivo £675,000, Djimi Traoré Charlton Athletic £2m, Carl Medjani Lorient Free, Neil Mellor Preston North End £500,000, Jan Kromkamp PSV Eindhoven £1.75m, Darren Potter Wolves £525,000, Stephen Warnock Blackburn Rovers £1.5m, Salif Diao Stoke City Free, Florent Sinama-Pongolle Recreativo de Huelva £2.7m, Danny O’Donnell Crewe £100,000, Bolo Zenden Marseille Free, Jerzy Dudek Free Transfer, Robbie Fowler Cardiff City Free, Luis Garcia Atletico Madrid £4m, Djibril Cissé Marseille £6m, Craig Bellamy West Ham United £7.5m, Mark Gonzalez Real Betis £3.5m, Gabriel Paletta Boca Juniors £1.2m, Chris Kirkland Wigan Athletic £3.5m, James Smith Stockport County Free, Momo Sissoko Juventus £8.2m, Lee Peltier Yeovil Town Free, John Arne Riise Roma £4m, Harry Kewell Free Transfer, Anthony Le Tallec Le Mans Undisclosed, Peter Crouch Portsmouth £11m, Danny Guthrie Newcastle United £2.2m, Scott Carson WBA £3.2m, Steve Finnan Espanyol Undisclosed, Robbie Keane Tottenham £16m, Jack Hobbs Leicester City Undisclosed, Sami Hyypia Free Transfer, Astrit Ajdarevic Leicester City Free, Paul Anderson Nottingham Forest £250,000, Sebastian Leto Panathinaikos £3m, Jermaine Pennant Real Zaragoza Free, Miki Roque Free, Álvaro Arbeloa Real Madrid £3.5m, Xabi Alonso Real Madrid £30m, Andrea Dossena Napoli £4.7m, Andriy Voronin Dinamo Moscow £1.8m, Nikolay Mihaylov Twente £1.5m, Mikel Domínguez Athletic Bilbao £2.6m, Fábio Aurélio Free Transfer, David Martin MK Dons Free, Yossi Benayoun Chelsea £6m.
Born: 16 April 1960 (Madrid)
LFC reign: 16 June 2004 - 3 June 2010
Honours: Champions League 2005; European Super Cup 2005; FA Cup 2006
Total LFC games as manager: 350
Goals for: 585
Goals against: 302
Premier League finishes: 2004/5 (5th), 2005/6 (3rd), 2006/7 (3rd), 2007/8 (4th), 2008/9 (2nd), 2009/10 (7th).