Benitez's man management skills at Real Madrid under fire after Atleti draw
By their own nature and the passions they exacerbate, derbies are high-risk, high-reward matters, with huge potential consequences for clubs, players and especially coaches who depend on their outcome.
A resounding victory can buy a decent amount of time for most under-fire managers, while an ignominious defeat can cast a shadow of concern over well-performing ones. For instance, many sources at Real Madrid state that former coach Carlo Ancelotti started to lose his job after the 4-0 thrashing of the Merengues at the hands of Atletico last season, despite the fact that he had conquered the coveted Decima for the club in the Champions League only a few months earlier.
The match between Atletico and Real Madrid on Sunday didn't quite have that effect but has indeed shown a few cracks in Real Madrid's dressing room, as a few of the main characters of the 1-1 draw have spoken about the match in the following days.
The first one to voice his opinion was goal scorer Karim Benzema, obviously unhappy to be replaced well before the final whistle once again, something that has happened in six of the eight official matches he has played so far this season. Asked why Los Blancos weren't able to finish off Atletico with a second goal, La Liga's current top scorer didn't hold back: "If the whole team are in our half, it's hard [to score a second goal]; in the second half we all were in our own half."
After the interval, the fact that Real Madrid felt content with their short 1-0 lead was blatantly obvious both in the way the team played and in manager Rafa Benitez's substitutions. Benzema's statements simply confirmed the point and provided the media with plenty of material.
But the Frenchman didn't stop there: "I'm trying to help, I need to work harder so that he doesn't replace me. Today I was subbed because of the result, so that we defended with more players. Ask him. I'm just here to play."
This begged the question of why always Benzema and never Cristiano Ronaldo, whose ill-advised decision making on Sunday deserved some minutes of bench far more than the Frenchman's performance.
Predictably enough, Benzema's public statements took a decent amount of Benitez's interview for radio station Cadena SER on Monday. The manager started by addressing Benzema's complaints with an empathetic: "I understand his anger, I'd be angry as well if my coach replaces me when I think I'm on a hot streak."
Benitez also denied not having the guts to send Cristiano to the bench: "I haven't replaced him because it's almost guaranteed that he'll score, that's why I keep him on the pitch. We need to find out what we need to do to get him to play at his best".
The manager then proceeded to address the "defensive" tag that has been thrown against him at several stages of his career. "That only happens in Spain. In Italy they used to say I was too offensive-minded. I broke Napoli's scoring record two years in a row. But here people say I'm too defensive-minded, even though we are the team that shoots the most on goal and the top scoring one."
The derby against Atletico does not really help him on that front. Real Madrid took nine shots and played in a boring style for most of the second half, while Atletico shot 19 times and ended up regretting not having a few more minutes to win the match. Benitez also refused having told the team to stay back, and explained that they didn't manage to click in any of the counter attacking chances they had.
But the most surprising statement had to do with Sergio Ramos. Asked about what angered him the most during the derby, Benitez took the rare decision to admonish a player in public, his skipper no less.
"It was Ramos' play that led to the penalty kick," he said. "Sergio knows he can't lose a ball like that."
Ramos obviously heard his manager's words and answered by elegantly putting his error at the same level of Benitez's substitutions.
"Critics? That is Real Madrid. Many will speak about my mistake, about the coach's replacements, if people agree with them or not... That is Real Madrid and if someone is not ready for that, he should change teams or profession," the defender responded.
Ramos admitted that his mistake was "childish," but also said that "we all learn from our mistakes, both players and coaches" again covering himself and Benitez under the same umbrella.
Sunday's derby has provided more fuel to the controversy of whether or not this Real Madrid of Benitez has the ability to score consistently match after match. The team still lacks a few team movements to get their top players into scoring positions, and has relied on individual plays that generate long range or contested shots. The manager's substitutions also sent a signal of managing the result, instead of going for the kill.
However, the match also provoked the first public disagreements between the manager and two of his most important players. In a dressing room that is famous because of the large number of challenging egos to manage, how well Benitez addresses these initial conflicts could be as important as his alternatives to generate a more steady offensive flow for the squad... if not more.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.