Benitez welcomes former protege Aimar to Anfield
Rafael Benitez has had cause to be grateful to Pablo Aimar more than once in the past, but when the two meet at Anfield on Thursday, the former will for once be hoping that the latter has one of his off nights.
Nevertheless he was far from the glamour replacement that the demanding Mestalla fans dreamed of, and was a last resort choice for the post after the likes of Luis Aragones and Depor's Javier Irureta had rejected it.
Aimar had plenty to prove himself. He had arrived in the January transfer window for a whopping €24 million, aged just 21. With the praise of a certain other squat Argentina playmaker ringing in his ears Aimar had shown plenty of promise, especially in the team's run to the Champions League final where they were agonisingly edged out on penalties by Bayern Munich. Aimar's contribution to that final telegraphed much of his future career. One storming first-half run threatened to split Bayern open before it was brought to a brutal halt to Patrick Andersson, for which the Swede received a booking. The Valencia man clearly felt the effects, and was substituted at half-time.
Benitez' reign at the Mestalla precipitated a bright new blend of positive football, in contrast to the more circumspect approach of Cuper. This suited Aimar down to the ground. The Benitez system was centred around a strong midfield.
It had physical players behind the playmaker to back him up (Albelda, Baraja) and strong runners to flank him (Rufete, Angulo, later Jorge López), as well as invariably a target man to play off (Mista, and later Ricardo Oliveira). The coach's rotation of players and systems protected Aimar and allowed him to have a strong impact in the games he did play.
Loyalty is a key tenet of Benitez' managerial philosophy. He had brought Mista with him from Tenerife and fast-tracked Curro Torres into the team, who had served him so well while on loan at the island club. When the coach needed his players to dig him out of a hole, they did. 2-0 down at Espanyol in mid-December 2001, Benitez' job was hanging by a thread before a stirring fightback saw Valencia win 3-2 and, retrospectively, light the fuse of their title charge. Aimar and Baraja both had key roles in this and the subsequent league triumph. Baraja topped the club scoring charts with seven and Aimar was joint second top scorer (five).
Aimar went on to be an important part in all of Valencia's best moments under Benitez. The coach's last season was the most successful, with Valencia recovering the title as part of the 2004 league/UEFA Cup double. With the 2002 championship having been the club's first in 31 years it was a golden era for the club, but it didn't last. Benitez' terrible relationship with sporting director Jesus Pitarch saw the former leave for Liverpool in the summer, and Aimar was never quite the same again.
The coach had always recognised Aimar's intrinsic fragility, and worked with that in mind. Benitez's essentially counter-attacking approach had worked partly due to Aimar's own qualities, but partly due to the personnel around him. New coach Claudio Ranieri's clutch of Italian signings fatally unbalanced a settled side, and Aimar laboured without Mista to play off. Jorge Lopez left on loan, Rufete was also marginalised and star winger Vicente fell into the fitness struggles that continue to beset him. Perhaps the only surprise was that it took until 2006 before Aimar finally left a club that was crumbling around him.
He enjoyed an excellent first season at Real Zaragoza, shouldered by fellow Argentinians Diego Milito and Andres D'Alessandro in an attractive side that finished a creditable sixth in the table, but Aimar was frequently sidelined by injury as the club got through four coaches during a disastrous follow-up season that culminated in relegation. Though people had long since accepted that he wasn't going to become the next Maradona, Aimar's career nevertheless seemed to have run aground.
Benitez was linked with a move for his former go-to guy, just as he had been in the immediate aftermath of his departure in 2004, but the idea of such a classical (and frequently unfit) playmaker flourishing in the hurly-burly of the Premier League seemed fanciful at best. Painfully protracted negotiations saw him eventually sign for Benfica in one of the Lisbon club's typically extravagant summer sprees, as they sought to exit their dry spell of just one league title since 1994.
Aimar shone intermittently pre-Christmas 2008, but suffered a succession of niggling injuries (even in a significantly less physical league) as Benfica's challenge came off the rails again. He was hailed as a hero on arrival, but quickly became a source of great frustration. One experienced Lisbon journalist described his first season contribution as "an absolute joke".
So what changed? In reality, little has about Aimar himself. The arrival at the Luz of another oft-feted but consistently underachieving Argentinian, Javier Saviola, has helped. He feels comfortable with players of comparable technical gifts around him, but he has also found the midfield power in Javi García and Ramires to give him a platform to perform. Coach Jorge Jesus manages Aimar well, who even shone enough to earn an Argentina recall for last October's World Cup qualifiers.
His decisive first-leg contribution against Liverpool, suckering Emiliano Insua into bringing him down for the equalising penalty, shows he still has the craft to create from tight spaces. Nobody is more aware of how dangerous he can be than his former boss. A happy, healthy Aimar has helped to revive Benfica. Now he could snatch away the last hope of salvation in what has been a trying season for his old ally Benitez.