independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Benitez facing tough task to overcome the Bridge of sighs

This was the first time that divorce papers were filed on the first date.

As Rafael Benitez stepped out of the tunnel, Chelsea fans made venomously clear their total unwillingness to form any sort of relationship with this 'interim first-team manager', who had replaced the popular Roberto Di Matteo and who had derided those who keep the blue flag flying high during his Liverpool days. This was brutal.

Benitez can take heart from the clean sheet against the champions of England, but he was naive to be dismissive about the fans' new song-sheet. The songs began early, spilling down from the Matthew Harding Upper and Lower, angry fans launching into, "F*** off Benitez, you're not wanted here" and, "There's only one Di Matteo". Even the hapless Steve Kean was into his second season before the full wrath of the Blackburn Rovers faithful was unleashed on him.

City's travelling choir, loving all the seething dissent, were in mischievous mood, serenading Benitez with "You're getting sacked in the morning" only 20 minutes into his tenure.

Benitez's subsequent observation that he has never understood what English fans sing was rather unwise, given how genuinely he responded to the Kop singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.

Benitez should have acknowledged that he heard the abuse, respected their passion for the club and was even more determined to win them over by succeeding here. For a clever man, Benitez does not think at times.

It was also imprudent to belittle those fans who had made placards, including one that read: 'In Di Matteo we trusted and loved. We will never trust and love Rafa Benitez. Fact.'

As works of art, these banners are not going to get much wall-space on King's Road galleries, but they reflect the fans' emotions about their club, their disgust at how they are being treated.

This was not a few expressing disapproval, this was a scene verging on the Coliseum. This was from swathes of season-ticket holders, embarrassed by their club's antics.

Roman Abramovich, wrapped up in a Chelsea windcheater, must have squirmed in his seat as supporters ripped into Benitez. Yet also fluttering on the Matthew Harding End were large banners declaring 'The Roman Empire' and 'Welcome to Chelsea FC, first London club to win the Champions League'.

Abramovich's bullion has taken Chelsea fans on the ride of their lives over the past decade. They lambasted Benitez but not the man who appointed him.

Amid all the rage, Chelsea fans also mourned a beloved former manager, Dave Sexton, who has passed away aged 82. The man who masterminded Chelsea's 1970 FA Cup and 1971 European Cup-Winners' Cup triumphs, Sexton embodied all the decency and dignity currently lacking in his old club.

City fans respectfully joined in with their Chelsea counterparts for the minute's applause in Sexton's memory before the baiting of Benitez resumed.

Yet, as Roberto Mancini pointed out afterwards, the Spaniard can win friends here if he wins games.

Even after only two training sessions, Benitez's influence could be detected. Chelsea looked tighter defensively, less open than recently.

David Luiz was more disciplined, but the most impressive performers along the back line were Ashley Cole, a model of alertness, and Cesar Azpilicueta, a mobile presence at right-back.

Chelsea looked more compact and organised, although some of their attacking intentions seemed slightly inhibited. Juan Mata was wider and deeper than usual, reducing his ability to trouble the opposition. Eden Hazard looks to have lost some of his early-season sparkle. Chelsea appeared to be trying to release Fernando Torres earlier. He ran hard, working the channels, chasing the bal,l but skied his best chance and still looks short of confidence.

Torres was also up against Vincent Kompany, who was on crutches after last Wednesday's Champions League match, but was on superb form here. He kept Torres at bay through physical means, simply denying him a route towards goal and through reading incoming balls.

Kompany's assured display was echoed by Pablo Zabaleta, who was terrific at right-back, attacking and defending with gusto. James Milner was similarly dynamic, charging all over, hunting down men in blue.

For a game between the champions of England and champions of Europe, this was not the greatest advertisement for football. A few moves raised the pulse-rate. David Silva headed over. Oscar took the ball off Toure, which was no mean feat. Sergio Aguero was briefly to the fore, having a shot blocked by Azpilicueta.

Petr Cech was more involved than Joe Hart. The Chelsea 'keeper saved Zabaleta's shot, then Matija Nastasic's header. Hart comfortably gathered a timid Luiz free-kick.

City should then have scored when Edin Dzeko nodded the ball back to Aguero, who directed his header straight at Cech.

Benitez arrived late for the second half, causing momentary merriment about his whereabouts at the club which disposes of managers so swiftly. He tweaked his team, pushing Hazard behind Torres but to little avail.

On the game meandered, the excellent Kompany cutting out a Cole cross. Chelsea's radar was wonky. Ramires shot over. Luiz headed over. Following a neat interchange between Mata and Hazard, Torres sent a left-footed drive over. It was as dispiriting as the damp weather.

Cole then demonstrated his exceptional positional sense to intercept Dzeko's cross. Benitez sent on Victor Moses, who delivered one superb cross that Cole thundered goalwards. Hart tipped the ball over, but it was erroneously given as a goal kick by Chris Foy, much to Benitez's ire. Oriol Romeu arrived to stiffen midfield as Chelsea closed down the game.

There was still time for some controversy. Mario Balotelli sprinted through and was clearly body-checked by Luiz. Foy booked Balotelli for diving which was laughable. The game finished as it began – with rancour on the terraces. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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