For the majority of Rafael Benitez's time as interim Chelsea boss, a dignified exit with his head held high seemed an impossible dream – yet the Spaniard pulled it off with admirable resilience. With his reputation restored following the Blues' Europa League triumph and a third place finish in the Premier League, Benitez has brought unexpected momentum with him as he begins his new job as Napoli manager.
Napoli fans are notoriously passionate, vocal and impatient, or so the story goes. But forging a relationship with the supporters will feel like a stroll in the park for the Spaniard after his Chelsea experience. After enduring chants, banners and vicious hatred during the darker days of his time at Stamford Bridge, he can at least expect to have the Napoli crowd on his side from day one. Home games will feel like home games again, with applause in place of boos and jeers.
Benitez's task in Naples is to help the club go one step further than last year when they finished second to Juventus in Serie A, despite losing only six games and being the highest scoring team in the league. Ultimately, the squad were just too stretched to launch a successful Scudetto bid. He will also have the chance to shine in the Champions League again, a competition he embraced during his Liverpool days and won in dramatic fashion in 2005 against AC Milan.
But his mission in Italy goes beyond helping Napoli achieve their goals. A portion of it is about banishing the memories of his ill-fated stint as Inter boss back in 2010 (he was appointed in June and dismissed in December). Following in the footsteps of Jose Mourinho, the Spaniard seemingly never won over the dressing room, clashed with the board over transfer policy and oversaw a disappointing title defence. As a result, his reputation as one of the game's finest managers took a serious blow. The fact that he won the Italian Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup during his brief spell at the San Siro has been buried in the footnotes.
"I prefer to remember the positive things from my time at Inter", the Spaniard recently explained. "Many people wanted to pass judgement without knowing what really happened. The truth is that the club and the technical staff got together and planned to rebuild the squad, with the names of new players. But the proposals were never followed. As I see it, it was the cause of everything that happened at Inter in that year and even perhaps in the following seasons."
Now he is back with a score to settle and statements to make. Just don't expect Benitez to tell it that way.
"I accepted the Napoli job because of the enthusiasm and passion surrounding the club", he explained. "I am keen to repay the club on the pitch. Napoli remind me a bit of Liverpool. We have a lot of quality players and an incredible hunger to win."
While there will likely be more transfer activity before the Italian season kicks off on 24th August, Benitez has inherited a talented squad capable of taking on the best teams in Europe on their day. He has lost Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain, but this is no one-man team. Marek Hamsik raised his game last season in a more central role while the experience of Paolo Cannavaro in defence will be critical, though it remains to be seen whether Benitez's tactical plan will include a back three. The Spaniard is on the lookout for more attacking options too, but with Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens recently signed, the post-Cavani blues may never appear.
Above all, the Napoli job presents a fresh start and a chance to add to his impressive CV. The past three years have brought up a lot of challenges for the 53-year-old, but he is now back in a position to succeed, without any external factors weighing him down. The conditions are, Benitez feels after a long look at the Azzurri, just right to complete his reputation rebuild.
At Stamford Bridge, Benitez proved he could handle the pressure and the critics with class and composure. Those traits will serve him well as he bids to prove to Serie A that he belongs among the game's greatest managers. As the new season approaches, this is one subplot to keep a close eye on.