Saturday 7 December 2019

Dion Fanning: Benitez an easy target in battle he can never win

Torres another victim of warring Chelsea fans lacking moral compass or credibility

Dion Fanning

Rafael Benitez answered the same questions in the same way, knowing that some fans of the club he manages will probably take offence at the things he said.

Since he arrived at Chelsea in November, it has been that way. Benitez has succeeded in implanting an identity on the Chelsea side, but it usually only manifests itself away from home where they have won all but one of the games since Benitez arrived. These have included spirited wins at Everton and Stoke. At Stamford Bridge, this developing organism is cowed by the domineering personality of the home crowd.

Perhaps they will be distracted today by the presence of a local rival, but the Chelsea fans have shown no inclination to forget their hostility towards Benitez.

All football fans need to create a mythology for themselves. They like to create a godhead to worship, a reference point. For Manchester United fans, it's Matt Busby. For Celtic supporters, it's Jock Stein. For Chelsea, it appears to be Roberto di Matteo.

In their belated awakening to the reality that their club is owned by an oligarch who does as he pleases, Chelsea fans have shown they have the moral compass of Carmela Soprano.

Just as Carmela embraces religion and occasionally takes a stand against her gangster husband but is mainly concerned with losing her wealth, the Chelsea supporters have made their feelings known, have asserted their rights as stakeholders by claiming their club back from a man who will be there for six months.

They relinquished sovereignty long ago, but most didn't care when Abramovich brought Mourinho and other good times. If Chelsea supporters had resisted then, they could claim, like the Manchester United fans who opposed the Glazers, that they had credibility.

Instead they went to war over a mediocre figure like Di Matteo. Of course, they had the European Cup and, as Benitez knows better than most, that leaves a mark on supporters but Chelsea fans seemed only to realise with the dismissal of Di Matteo that they didn't have a voice at the club. They have tried to create one by shouting Benitez out and now they have run out of patience with Fernando Torres.

The simplistic view of Benitez when he arrived was that he was at Chelsea to bring the best out of Torres. There were glimpses of the old Torres, especially in a header he scored against Aston Villa, but in the last few weeks he has again looked like a crushed human being.

When Chelsea played Swansea in the first leg of the Capital One Cup, Chelsea supporters chanted for Frank Lampard, a man who at that point had scored 193 goals for Chelsea and is now the second highest goalscorer in the club's history, and Demba Ba, who had played once and scored twice. You could be forgiven for failing to understand the process that leads to the creation of legends.

Chelsea supporters have good reason to have grown tired of Torres. Reports continue to state that he regrets his move from Liverpool and wishes he could return. At Liverpool, his dissatisfaction chimed with the decay of the club but now it may be that he is dissatisfied no matter what. He felt, according to some, threatened by Didier Drogba and the dressing-room power he had amassed. Drogba left and players arrived who would supposedly suit his game, and still he didn't recover. Benitez, too, knows how to get the best from him but that may have been when his best was possible. With a lack of pace and concurrent plague of self-doubt, Torres looks shot.

Benitez continues to express the public hope that by providing him with options and the opportunity to rest, Torres will improve. "Torres is a Chelsea player and they have to understand that he will try his best. It is important for everyone to understand that the way to win is to win together." Benitez may have got the best out of Torres but he was also prepared to sell him in the summer of 2010 having detected a dropping of the high, and sometimes impossible, standards the manager demanded at Liverpool.

Torres will not be protected at Chelsea if Benitez thinks Ba can do a better job. Ba will help Torres, Benitez says, if he can provide him with the opportunity to rest. "If Torres can rest, he will be fitter and fresher and he can play at the level we know that he can play." Yet Benitez does not have the time in any sense to wait for Torres. Right now he is turning, as so many at Chelsea have done before, to John Terry.

On Friday, he remarked that "experience doesn't mean that you're a leader, it means that you're experienced". Terry offers both and may be risked today as Chelsea look for their first home win since they beat Aston Villa on December 23.

He has players like Lampard, Cole and Terry who have the character he needs. There may be others who arrived at the club with big reputations, but have discovered that they can't find the time and space to play.

Benitez wanted to toughen up the side when he arrived at Chelsea. Against Arsenal at lunchtime, he might get the opportunity to play. He admires Wenger more than any other manager in English football and he knows their players too. Santi Cazorla has a close friendship with Pep Reina and Reina used to encourage Benitez to sign him.

Cazorla was then at Villarreal and the club's president Fernando Roig was determined to keep the team together. "Then they had problems and it became even more complicated. To come as Cazorla has and settle down, sometimes that is not just to do with the quality of the player, the environment can make the difference."

Cazorla has settled at Arsenal, but some earlier scouting reports had wondered if his shy demeanour would prove a handicap at a big club. At Arsenal, there have been no doubts. "He is doing well in a good team with a good manager. If you move him to another team, can he do the same? Maybe, maybe not," Benitez says.

Benitez was among the first to realise that Spanish players could adapt in England.

"People like Arsene Wenger and other foreign managers have changed things in England," he says. Benitez may be talking about himself, but he has noticed how the game has changed. "Fifteen years ago, there wouldn't have been too much talk of tactics in press conferences, now people say 'Oh, you have to play a holding midfielder' or 'You have to play 4-2-3-1'. Little by little, England is changing things. If you keep the tradition and bring the best from outside, it will be positive. If you keep the passion, the mentality and the spirit and add the good things, things will be even better."

Benitez's personality may never be accepted at Chelsea, even if some claim they also don't like his tactics.

If Pep Guardiola had chosen to be seduced by Abramovich then maybe the Chelsea supporters would have rejoiced yet again (they certainly wouldn't have been abusing him despite the history between Chelsea and Barcelona).

They will turn on Benitez if Chelsea lose today and they will probably turn on him if they win.

Privately he may be hurt by the abuse and he may accept that he will never be in the Chelsea job for a long time. In their incoherent rage, some Chelsea fans get angry when Benitez mentions that he could, say, take over at Real Madrid when they would surely want him to go away.

Guardiola's move to Bayern has increased the chances of Benitez staying at the club, although a move to Madrid might be the best outcome for everyone. "If we improve the team then we can win against anyone," the manager says. No matter which team Chelsea defeat, the impression persists that Benitez can never win at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea v Arsenal,

Sky Sports 1, 1.30

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