His Liverpool team have had the most miraculous comeback for fifteen years, and the Spaniard remembers the celebrations with obvious pride.
About a million supporters rushed through the city streets to welcome their heroes home one day after Liverpool saved a halftime deficit to beat an AC Milan par excellence on penalties in the final of the Champions League.
Wave after wave of supporters rushed into town to commemorate one of the great sporting returns and to encourage the people who had made it all happen.
These are scenes that came to define a generation for Reds fans and the celebrations have left an indelible mark on those who have been privileged to be involved.
Especially for Benitez, who lights up remembering the unforgettable events that took place in Liverpool on May 26, 2005.
“You will never forget these days,” he told ECHO in an exclusive chat on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Liverpool’s triumph for the fifth European Cup.
The race from Liverpool to Istanbul
“Everything was incredible, from the celebrations in Istanbul to the flight home and then to the atmosphere of the city.
“There were people everywhere. On roads, bridges, lampposts, trees. All over. It was like the “Red Sea”.
The iconic images could not have been seen just 22 hours earlier when the two teams took the field of the Atatürk stadium.
Milan was one of the most revered teams on the planet and the Reds had exceeded their weight throughout the competition.
With a pinch of star dust and a tenacious approach to defense, Liverpool had made their way to the first European Cup final since 1985 after being seconds away from elimination in the group stage a few months ago earlier.
While his players rested before the biggest night of their professional life, Benitez used his time at the hotel to examine Milan’s defense on set pieces, hoping to find a weakness to exploit.
The Liverpool analysis team had given his manager a series of clips to dissect, but the Stratego specialist chased more, feeling that his own studious eye for details could trace a plan of success against the big names of Carlo Ancelotti.
A team meeting under the Turkish sun allowed him to convince his players that they could somehow upset the odds. But after coming as far as the perennial outsiders, the team did not need to be reminded that they were capable of achieving the unthinkable.
“Obviously, my team worked very hard to prepare for the final,” he adds. “At that time, it was not difficult [to convince them].
“Everyone was excited. It was an opportunity. A final. So we wanted to win and tell them how hard we had worked to be there. It was the message. “
Liverpool were greeted with a disastrous start when Paolo Maldini converted in 50 seconds to the Rossoneri.
It was the Reds’ biggest game in 20 years and after working so hard to make it happen with famous wins against Juventus and Chelsea, a nightmare scenario was unfolding.
Benitez had surprised by appointing Harry Kewell to the starting squad in place of Didi Hamann, but the gamble turned against him.
The Reds struggled to take control of Andrea Pirlo and Brazilian superstar Kaka went wild.
He said, “Tactically, we wanted to start with more attacking players on the field to have the opportunity to create more chances.
“Steven Gerrard was in the middle with Luis Garcia, Kewell, John Arne Riise and Milan Baros. We wanted to score goals.
“I remember telling them to play long after kick-off and go to press. We didn’t play long enough and we made a mistake. So it was not a good start. “
Benitez refused to panic, but his characteristic freshness only contrasted with his hot-headed players fluttering on the big stage. They seemed impressed with the scale of the event.
Milan erased a line before Andriy Shevchenko was flagged for a marginal offside to 2-0.
“As I said before, we played it too short since kick-off and after committing a foul, we didn’t defend it well.
“It was not the start of your dream. Again, you have to stick to your plan, later we had to find solutions, try to react.
“But at that time, it was just a matter of continuing with confidence in the hard work you had done to prepare for the match. “
Kewell’s experience was brought to a head when the Australian was forced to leave injured.
Benitez brought Vladimir Smicer during his last appearance in the Liverpool red before half an hour in his place.
With Kaka and Pirlo continuing to bewitch the opposition, Hernan Crespo took center stage, going from a short distance to a double advantage for Milan.
And with Benitez working on his 2-0 half-time half-time team upkeep, a delicious Kaka ball divided Liverpool in two and allowed Crespo to push Jerzy Dudek to seemingly put the game to bed.
“I was preparing what I was going to say at halftime with the 2-0 down team,” recalls Benitez. “And my English was not the best. It’s still not the case now, so imagine 15 years ago!
“We then conceded the third goal, but the message to the players had to be the same, I had to give them confidence, make them believe. “
The half-time whistle offered a temporary reprieve. The Liverpool players left the field, convinced they were beaten.
But when everything around him seemed to lose his head at the Ataturk, Benitez knew he had to keep his own.
Every previous moment in his career, from the sheltered field, had apparently been built towards it.
His players, defeated, discouraged, disheveled, turned to him for inspiration. He knew he had to deliver.
So how did he keep calm with the Reds rushing into humiliation?
He says, “As a young player, I played for Real Madrid and you used to play just to finish first, so it was a long learning process.
“After promotions in crucial matches with Extremadura or Tenerife or major La Liga and UEFA Cup matches with Valencia, I controlled myself to be sure I did my job well.
“I had to analyze the game to give my players the support they needed. “
What followed between minutes 45 and 46 became the stuff of Anfield’s mythology.
“As all Liverpool fans know, I replaced Traore to play with three in the back and Hamann in the middle,” recalls Benitez of his biggest team speech in his career.
“But at the end of the team discussion, Dave Galley, our chief physio, told me that Steve Finnan would not be able to cope with the 45 minutes of the second half.
“With the replacement of Vladimir Smicer with Harry Kewell already done, we couldn’t afford to play the entire second half without being able to change something if it was necessary.
“And at that moment, a change was imperative!
“So quickly I changed it to Traore, with the same system, but different players to have another possible substitution and it worked well in the end. “
Perhaps no other manager could have analyzed so quickly and surgically, his team drowning in the biggest game in club football.
At the hour mark, it was 3-3.
First, Gerrard met center Riise to plant a spectacular header in front of Milan Dida goalkeeper.
Smicer made it 3-2 with a low shot from the range that got deep into the corner.
And then Xabi Alonso, after saving his initial penalty, stuck a finish of the left foot in the roof of the net.
Three goals in six minutes. Again, against all odds, Liverpool had shocked the world.
Liverpool 3-3 AC Milan. For Reds fans, it was emotionally draining. For Benitez, less.
“Normally, I tried not to lose my concentration,” says the famous calculated Benitez. “In this case, I couldn’t lose a second.
“The match was so exciting and difficult to manage against such a great team that I didn’t know how quickly time ran out.
“I just wanted to help the players with my advice.
“I always like to talk to my staff to get ideas from them (the assistants) Pako Ayestaran and Alex Miller were both important, to make sure I made the right decisions.”
Moving Gerrard behind Baros was a master stroke. This allowed an unleashed Reds skipper to wreak havoc on the back line previously without Milan’s problems.
It was his wonderful head that threw the most improbable retaliation before his burst beyond Baros won the penalty for Alonso to improve things.
“Stevie showed what he was capable of in this match as he did in the following years of his career,” said captain Benitez.
“He could play well in any position but behind the striker he was deadly.
“His timing, power, vision of assists and finishing precision were fantastic. Also, as a right winger and a right back, if necessary.
“He made all the difference. “
With the scores suddenly level, the game plan should be readjusted.
Within the first 60 minutes, both teams were injured. Apprehension, once again, ran through the ranks of the Reds. Did they dare to pursue a fourth?
The Italians are the closest to scoring again, as Shevchenko was thwarted by Dudek with a stop that still defies logic 15 years later.
After making a head save, the Pole threw a hopeful wrist as the best No.9 in Europe jumped with the goal at his mercy every two yards.
Somehow the ball bounced off the bar and Liverpool survived. The Milan players have already explained how they knew it was not their night when Shevchenko was refused.
After 120 exhausting and demanding minutes, he would be decided by penalties.
A broken Jamie Carragher asked Dudek to invoke the spirit of Bruce Grobbelaar in Rome more than 20 years ago in an effort to distract snipers from Milan with a 2005 incarnation of the famous “spaghetti legs”.
And while a lot of credit has since been given to Dudek’s antics during the shootout, Benitez says the legend doesn’t quite match reality.
In fact, the success of the shooting, like so many of Benitez’s other triumphs, was due more to the careful preparation of him, his staff and his players.
“People were talking about Jerzy and the Bruce Grobbelaar moves Carra had told him to do, but I will say it was more than that,” he said.
“I was confident we could win the game on penalties. Since I was a young coach, I have always had my own software to control training, competitions and players.
“We knew where four of the five penalty takers used to place their penalties. If you have to take a penalty in the final, you will do so on your strong side.
“So I was pretty confident that Jerzy would save a few penalties. My goalkeeper trainer, Jose Manuel Ochotorena, had already done his job. “
After Serginho shined well above the bar, the legendary Pirlo had his effort saved before Shevchenko, perhaps still unable to understand the refusal to extend, hit a tame kick in the middle for Dudek to stopped.
Liverpool had done it. Against all rhyme and reason, they were European champions. This time, the trophy was theirs.
Fifteen years later, the typically pragmatic Benitez lets a touch of sentimentality overwhelm him as he sums up the legacy of a game that has become “Istanbul Miracle”.
“It was and will be the best final of all time in terms of emotions and even tactical changes,” said Benitez. “For all Liverpool fans, it certainly will be.
“It was clear from that day on why the fans sing You will never walk alone. “