Sport Soccer

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Calm after the storm as Benitez keeps battling

CHELSEA 1 WEST BROM 0

The crowd don't play,’ Steve Clarke said later, even if Benitez thought their influence had been great
The crowd don't play,’ Steve Clarke said later, even if Benitez thought their influence had been great

Dion Fanning

As the crowd left Stamford Bridge yesterday, one Chelsea fan turned to the press box. "We were quiet, no reaction. What are you going to write about now?" The modern history of Chelsea suggests something will pop up.

As the crowd left Stamford Bridge yesterday, one Chelsea fan turned to the press box. "We were quiet, no reaction. What are you going to write about now?" The modern history of Chelsea suggests something will pop up.

In the final minutes of injury-time, as Chelsea defended a corner and a one-goal lead, it felt that mutiny was only a goal away. Instead Chelsea hung on, they had three points and there was an atmosphere which could be almost mistaken for harmony. When Benitez came in afterwards, he uttered words few had expected 24 hours earlier: "I want to enjoy today."

Beforehand Stamford Bridge was as genteel as ever. Some Chelsea fans hadn't listened to Benitez and had spent their time making banners although judging by their quality they hadn't wasted too much time on them.

Yet beyond the ritual boos and chants, it was possible to detect that maybe some Chelsea fans thought it was now time to turn down the volume of the abuse.

In the second half when a chant went up 'Stand up if you hate Rafa', many across the ground got up, but in the stand behind him most stayed in their seats. Perhaps even in this ugly world, a few wondered how ugly they were prepared to be.

Afterwards Benitez attempted to move on, even if at times it sounded as if he was trying to move into a world where he hadn't made his comments after the Middlesbrough game.

He praised the atmosphere yesterday and said the players had more confidence with "the fans behind the team". Yet he refused to answer when he was asked if he felt they hadn't been in the past. "Today they were behind the team and everybody was happy."

Benitez tried to smile through the press conference and he had tried his best to continue working as normal. At 10pm on Friday night, he was still at Chelsea's Cobham training ground, going through video clips for his tactical direction for yesterday's game. But that level of industry doesn't suit the story of Benitez's brief time at the club. Instead once he stood up from the technical area he was booed and at kick-off there were the usual anti-Benitez chants.

He is alone at the Bridge, unavoidably when he manages the team, but the silence from above and below him has helped created the sense of isolation. Nothing, perhaps, would have changed the mood of hostility.

Yesterday, there were chants for 'Jose Mourinho', which would probably have angered Benitez and, on the couple of occasions when the ball ended up in his hands, the crowd booed.

Yet, as the first half went on, and Chelsea swiftly passed the ball round West Brom, it was like any other game at Stamford Bridge, serene and inoffensive. "The crowd don't play," Steve Clarke said later, even if Benitez thought their influence had been great.

Afterwards he wanted only to praise them and refused to be drawn into questions about the chants against him. When asked if he was hurt about the chants for Mourinho, he replied, "I was really pleased with Demba Ba."

Ba's goal was a well-worked move although Clarke felt West Brom had switched off from the corner which led to it.

One of Benitez's problems was sitting directly behind him with John Terry only on the bench, another example of the interim manager's permanent if admirable stubbornness. "He is fully fit," Benitez confirmed.

At times, Chelsea played some great football and it was like the last week had never happened. By half-time, most of the anger had disappeared and Benitez could leave his seat unnoticed in the second half, like a man experiencing freedom following a long time wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.

It wouldn't be right to say that humanity had made its presence felt but there was an uneasy peace, apart from the shouts for Mourinho and the "Benitez-we'll sing what we want" chants.

Peter Odemwingie came on, a reminder that all clubs have their internal difficulties, although some are less internal and more difficult than others. "The Odemwingie saga is over for us," Clarke said.

The Benitez saga might not go away so easily. Last night, Benitez returned to Liverpool for a couple of days. As it stands, he will expect to return. That in itself is another unlikely chapter in the modern history of Chelsea.

Irish Independent

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