Benitez in firing line as heat is turned up
Rafael Benitez is increasingly resigned to his Chelsea tenure finishing at the end of the season. With the club's supporters relentlessly negative and the manager appearing isolated, he knows his prospects of a long-term contract are remote.
The Spaniard takes his team to Middlesbrough for an awkward FA Cup fifth-round tie tomorrow hoping to restore confidence after a chastening 2-0 defeat at Manchester City on Sunday.
Victory will set up a welcome sixth-round meeting with Manchester United, but it is league form that will determine Chelsea's season and Benitez's future.
It might seem reckless to replace an interim manager with just 11 games remaining but owner Roman Abramovich has form for acting this late in the season.
Andre Villas-Boas was fired on March 4 last year, the day after Chelsea lost at West Bromwich Albion. Ominously, Steve Clarke's side are Chelsea's next opponents, their visit to Stamford Bridge coming 364 days after the game that did for AVB.
The Baggies have proved lethal for Chelsea managers in the past year. Villas Boas's successor, Roberto Di Matteo, lost his job after another defeat at the Hawthorns in November was followed by the calamitous reverse at Juventus that effectively knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League.
After taking just three league points in February, March offers Chelsea the chance to build form. West Ham also visit Stamford Bridge and there are away games at Fulham and Southampton. Sunderland then come to London before games against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United that will decide Chelsea's fate.
Benitez has had three months to come to terms with the squad and, while they have not been transformed, there has been progress. Chelsea have the second most potent attack in the league and only City are more parsimonious. But with supporters abusing Benitez even in victory the job is a grind.
Abramovich was impressed by Benitez's early work but it would be hard to oppose the Stamford Bridge faithful and appoint him in the long term.
Sunday brought perhaps the most disappointing performance of Benitez's reign, a game in which few of his selection gambles worked and luck did not compensate. Benitez's biggest call was to drop John Terry from what would have been his third game in eight days.
The club captain is still recovering from a knee injury and Benitez appears to have reasoned that selecting him against the pace and trickery of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez was a gamble.
Instead David Luiz dropped back to centre-half, a move that made the defence more mobile but meant the Brazilian's presence and passing was missed in midfield.
Chelsea look half the side without Luiz in a holding role, and John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard were eclipsed by Yaya Toure and his colleagues on Sunday.
Gary Cahill admitted as much after the game: "I had way too much to do. Normally at a big club, you probably get asked to do three or four important things in a game. Against City we probably had 20 or 25.
"Unfortunately, if you keep getting asked the question, ultimately there's going to be a goal."
Common sense dictates that Benitez be allowed to see out the job he started regardless of results tomorrow and Saturday, not least because of the lack of obvious replacements.
Avram Grant would not carry the dressing-room and a promotion for technical director Michael Emenalo, who compiled an unbalanced squad divided between technicians and power-players, might be a risk too far. But Abramovich does not always indulge received wisdom.
From the man who sacked Double winner Carlo Ancelotti for finishing second in the league, anything is possible. (© Daily Telegraph, London)