The intrigue of the Benítez interlude

by Ciaran Kelly

For all the talk of plastic flags, Didier Drogba’s theatrics and ardent loyalty towards Liverpool, it was another less heralded moment that stood out in Rafael Benítez’s curious relationship with Chelsea pre-2012.

In the pre-match conference on the eve of Liverpool’s surprising 1-3 Champions League quarter-final first-leg defeat to Chelsea on 9 April, 2009, Benítez spent the majority of the time discussing Sir Alex Ferguson being “scared.”

The Spaniard felt that, if Liverpool went out of the competition, they would be an even bigger threat to United in the Premier League but, of course, the damage had already been done in the aftermath of Benítez’s infamous ‘fact-based’ rant on 9 January.

Instead of focusing on the task at hand – a rejuvenated Chelsea under Guus Hiddink – Benítez could not bring himself to move away from talking of how he once had “a very good relationship with him [Ferguson].”

Admittedly, there is a danger of reading too much into this but it is clear that Liverpool’s pre-match focus and meticulous preparations were not up to their usual impeccable standards and Benítez did not show Chelsea the same respect he had, inadvertently, afforded Ferguson.

Liverpool going ahead through Fernando Torres on 6’ ironically accentuated this, with sloppiness gripping the home side in poor marking for all three of Chelsea’s goals in the clinical sixty-seven minute aftermath of Torres’ strike.

In Benítez’s all-seeing world, this was unforgivable given Chelsea’s obvious height threat and it was something of a watershed moment in a period that should have been the basis for Liverpool progression.

Despite, or maybe even because of, Benítez signing a new long-term contract, Liverpool cracked in a peak-aged title challenger’s greatest fall of the Premier League era.

Benítez’s paranoia grew, key players were isolated, boardroom unrest spilled over and there was the unforgivable decision to let Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso depart the club for Real Madrid so freely.

Even Benítez’s Midas touch in Europe eventually suffered: claiming just seven points and scoring only five goals in a winnable Group E featuring Fiorentina and Lyon with Liverpool in 2009/2010; and narrowly progressing into the second-round with holders Internazionale after ragged tactical performances against Tottenham (3-1 loss on 2 November, 2010) and Werder Bremen (3-0 defeat on 7 December, 2010) in 2010/2011.

Given that his European previous before 2009 is his selling point and that Chelsea are unlikely to progress into the second-round of the Champions League – due to the immense likelihood of a biscotto between Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus – the question remains: why on earth was Benítez brought in?

Remarkably, that is without even addressing the club’s supposed ‘honour’ when they decided against appointing Benítez as André Villas-Boas’ successor, following Chelsea fans’ vociferous protests during the 0-2 victory over Birmingham City on 6 March, 2012.

Also, this is a man who craves stability, autonomy and support, yet knew full-well that he was to enter an uncharacteristically cauldron-like atmosphere at Stamford Bridge. Remarkably, this reception was an even bigger contrast to the usurpation by Avram Grant of José Mourinho in September, 2007, which led to Abramovich desperately sitting in the Shed End during the 0-0 draw with Fulham on 29 September, 2007.

Still, though, there was a widespread feeling that Mourinho’s time at Chelsea should have come to an end on the back of the 2007 FA Cup victory over Manchester United, thereby fulfilling Béla Guttmann’s three-year rule. After all, the Portuguese’s hold over the dressing-room had waned: encapsulated in his fall-out with John Terry before the 1-1 draw against Rosenborg on 18 September, 2007.

Roberto Di Matteo, on the other hand, while not the world-renowned name Mourinho is, enjoyed a similarly special relationship with Chelsea’s fans. In being so ingrained within the club’s DNA, Di Matteo brought the club back to the hearts of traditional fans.

After all, in contrast to the scandals of the Abramovich era, one of the proudest images of Chelsea’s recent history was that of a retired (owed to a horrific triple leg fracture) Di Matteo leading Chelsea out in the 2002 FA Cup final against Arsenal.

Channeling this inspiration, his 2011/2012 tactics echoed the valiant, results-driven exports of Ted Drake, while his 2012/2013 efforts saw Chelsea play their best football in over twelve years.

Also, in boldly selecting Ryan Bertrand over Paulo Ferreira, Florent Malouda and Torres for the Champions League final against Bayern Munich on 19 May, 2012, Di Matteo sent a clear message.

Abramovich’s muted response to Di Matteo’s “I won it!” exclamation on the steps of the Allianz Arena on 19 May, 2012 was, ultimately, telling

Finally, after nine years, three generations of Chelsea were married: Di Matteo’s cup-winning exploits as a player; Abramovich’s frivolous expenditure; and Bertrand’s local-standing (homeplace of Southwark is just 10.5km from Stamford Bridge).

It seemed that, for at least a season, this could be sustained and Di Matteo could boost his CV even further in laying a philosophical foundation for the supposedly inevitable arrival of Josep Guardiola.

In fairness to the seemingly unsentimental Abramovich, this seemed perfect evidence that he was well aware of Chelsea’s heritage. After all, in his first move as owner, he aimed to keep the 38 year old Gianfranco Zola at the club in 2003.

Of course, even in the face of a £60,000 wage increase, Zola did not go back on his word with Cagliari and, perhaps, this stung Abramovich in hindsight of his actions with former players and eventual club assistants Steve Clarke and Ray Wilkins.

After all, Mourinho threatened to resign when Abramovich planned to replace Clarke with Grant as the Portuguese’s assistant manager in the summer of 2008; and Wilkins was, bizarrely, not handed a new contract in October, 2010.

Instead, the Russian has been hell-bent on establishing his own dynasty with the development of world-class training and youth facilities at Cobham, the proposed 60,000 Samsung Arena at SW8, multi-million pound sponsorship deals with Adidas, Samsung and Gazprom, and the acquisition of Europe’s biggest superstars over the years

Now, with renewed short-termism, Abramovich has decided that he wants a different man pre-Guardiola, which, ironically, is likely to put the Catalan off.

Augmenting the bizarre nature of the interim appointment, Benítez was not even afforded an official club blazer for the match against Manchester City on 25 November and the Spaniard looked every bit the outsider as he consulted with Steve Holland about which order he was to sit in Chelsea’s luxurious dugout.

Then, of course, there were the boos but it is worth noting that despite the stagnancy of the match, the absolute worst of the anti-Benítez chants, generally, petered out after the peak of applauding Di Matteo and his number sixteen shirt number on 16’.

It turned to a subdued, rather than the usually tense, Stamford Bridge atmosphere for a big game and with Benítez unlikely to excite or dramatically better Di Matteo’s previous results – other than more clean sheets – one wonders whether this was perfect evidence that the next firefighting six months are an effective write-off in the club’s history in comparison to Hiddink in 2008/2009 or Di Matteo in 2011/2012.

However, with the sneaking suspicion that Guardiola will, again, turn down Abramovich’s overtures, could Benítez and his anti-Mourinho abrasiveness ever be embraced by Chelsea fans beyond the announcement of a permanent manager in seven months?

Of course, names from Laurent Blanc and Hiddink to Jürgen Klopp and Andrea Stramaccioni will be touted once Guardiola makes his intentions known, but with Abramovich not awarding Di Matteo the support even Villas-Boas was given, the shortage of top-class candidates has receded even further.

However, given how Chelsea’s chairman, Bruce Buck, was well aware of the anti-Benítez feeling within the club’s support last season, it is clear that Abramovich, ultimately, made the decision of his own accord.

He clearly sees something in Benítez’s fairly-acclaimed tactical nous and spikiness in a bid to, yet again, ruffle up the Chelsea dressing-room and attempt a last-ditch bid to channel Torres’ greatest performances in a Liverpool shirt from 2007-2010.

Also,with Benítez, in a seeming gaffe, talking so openly about Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard leaving the club, the Spaniard is clearly well-aware of the recruitment and contract renewal side of the club: an uncommon trait for a suppose interim.

Cementing this, Benítez was afforded the opportunity to bring in three members of staff – Boudewijn Zenden, Paco de Miguel and Xavi Valero – and with Petr Čech’s long-standing, solo relationship with Christophe Lollichon, Valero is an intriguing appointment for a short-term plan. This theory was accentuated by the fact Benítez turned down the exact same short-term opportunity to manage Chelsea just nine months ago.

Therefore, in Abramovich’s curious logic, it would be of little surprise for the Russian to attribute Chelsea’s ‘poor’ start to Di Matteo and give Benítez the benefit of the doubt for an eighteen-month contract if he secured 3rd place, the Club World Cup and the FA Cup.

The trouble with that for Abramovich is, near-inevitably – without even addressing the fans’ disgust if Benítez is awarded the job due to a lack of alternatives - Chelsea will be back to an identical, managerless situation in twelve months time.

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