Sunday 18 February 2018

Benitez future in doubt already

Fans' revolt has piled on pressure, says Dion Fanning

There have been many astonishing moments in the recent story of Chelsea, but they may be entering the most bizarre era in their history.

Rafael Benitez spent the aftermath of yesterday's defeat at Upton Park answering questions about his future at the club, nine days after he was appointed.

Roman Abramovich knew what he was doing when he decided to sack Roberto Di Matteo and replace him with Benitez. He understood that there would be a reaction from supporters.

Yet he may not have envisaged how bad it would get and how quickly. Chelsea are currently a club at war with itself. The supporters chanted their opposition to Benitez even during a first half when Chelsea led and were playing well. In the second, as Chelsea were overrun, some joined in the West Ham supporters' chant, 'You're getting sacked in the morning'.

At Chelsea, it doesn't sound outlandish. "You can't do it if the fans aren't behind you," Sam Allardyce said yesterday before again offering the solution of victory. It was being noted yesterday that Brian Clough's 44 days at Leeds will be matched by Benitez on January 5, FA Cup third-round day.

After the pure hostility of his first game in charge, Benitez agreed with Roberto Mancini's suggestion last Sunday that he needed to win games to persuade the fans. "It's not a secret," he said. Chelsea's dysfunction isn't hidden from view either and, right now, winning matches won't be enough to win supporters over; losing games will make things much, much worse.

Yesterday's game wasn't one that Chelsea should have lost. "They should have finished us off but they didn't and they paid the price," Allardyce said after the game.

For 45 minutes, it was possible to detect Benitez's influence for the first time on this Chelsea side. They looked like a team with purpose, with each player understanding what was expected of him. In the second half, after Allardyce made two substitutions, most crucially the introduction of Mohamed Diame, Chelsea again looked like the team that hadn't won in six matches. Soon it was seven as West Ham came from behind to win.

Benitez is a manager who has the rare ability to block out the soundtrack from voices which aren't necessary to his ideas for creating a winning team. But football isn't always rational and football at Chelsea defies all logic. His survival has become a story only days after his return to English football was the story.

Yesterday he was asked if the players were finding it difficult to play while their supporters chanted and unfurled banners against the manager.

The public answer is that they concentrate on what happens on the pitch but Allardyce may have been more than simply mischievous when he revealed that his team had felt Chelsea would enjoy playing away from Stamford Bridge. In the second half, they couldn't even enjoy that.

Benitez may regret not pursuing Chelsea's offer last March when he would have taken over from the unpopular Andre Villas-Boas rather than the strangely heroic figure of Roberto Di Matteo.

Di Matteo was the fortunate one last March and won the Champions League without ever convincing the owner.

In the summer, Chelsea brought in players intended to revive the squad but they may now be part of the problem. There will come a moment when someone will have to knock on Roman Abramovich's door and tell him that the players he bought in the summer to woo Pep Guardiola aren't what they are supposed to be.

Laughably, the Chelsea fans chanted 'You don't know what you're doing' when Benitez took off Eden Hazard and replaced him with Oscar. It would be a chant better directed at the scouts who paid £32m for Hazard or the owner who signed off on it.

Central to all that Chelsea fail to do is, of course, Fernando Torres. Yesterday he attempted to reinvent himself as a deep-lying forward as he moved further and further away from the opposition goal as if anxious that he would find himself up against the last defender and his lack of pace would be revealed.

Torres' decline is more than just the story of the reduction of his physical assets. His disintegration as a footballer has been caused by his failure to cope with diminishing physical gifts, most notably his pace. This loss of pace did terrible things to his head.

At one point yesterday, Juan Mata picked up the ball. He wanted to play it over the top for Torres to chase. Torres came deep, Mata hesitated. Torres came deeper as if pleading with Mata not to do it, not to put him in harm's way. Finally, Mata played a ball 40 yards ahead of Torres which he could never reach. Mata seemed to be saying, "That where you should be. That is where you used to be."

Torres is haunted by his own ghost as all fading footballers are. He and his ghost fit in to the dysfunctional world of Chelsea right now but in the second half there was a total failure of leadership. It may be concluded that open revolt can't help the players but there appears to be a number of players at Chelsea who find open revolt a comfortable reason for their failure.

Ashley Cole isn't one of them. He made a mistake for West Ham's final goal but it was a mistake which came from his attempt to take responsibility while some of his team-mates allowed him to take it.

Benitez has been encouraged in his dealings with Abramovich and open and relaxed about the challenge he faced.

Yesterday he was under greater pressure, a manager who after three games is essentially being asked if he has taken the team as far as he can.

The story may change quickly at Chelsea, it often does. Right now, there is one story.

It was Abramovich who many feared would be sated by winning the Champions League, but maybe it was the fans. Maybe, having won everything, they decided they wanted their club back. Nobody is quite sure what Chelsea they want back and so far they haven't had the temerity to turn on Abramovich. They might not recognise the Chelsea they see at the moment but, to the outsider, it looks very familiar.

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