Tuesday 12 December 2017

Focus on Lampard 'not fair' – Benitez

Stoke City 0 Chelsea 4

Jim White

Never mind waiting until the 16th minute to demonstrate their support for someone they reckon is a victim of their club's administration, this game was no more than 45 seconds old before the first chorus of 'Super Frankie Lampard' filled the stadium.

And when, midway through the second half, their hero rounded off a typically composed, disciplined and forceful display by hammering home a venomous penalty in front of them, they were giddy in their celebration.

"Sign him up," they demanded as he clenched his fist to them.

If there is one cast-iron way to win over sceptical Chelsea fans right now, it must be to embrace Lampard's cause.

Acknowledge that he is vital to the team's future well-being and that the Stamford Bridge hierarchy's determination to show him the exit is bonkers, and they will applaud your words to the echo.

If you are a hugely unpopular interim manager, for instance, it might be reckoned a shrewd bit of public relations.

And yet on Saturday Rafael Benitez refused the invitation to endorse his magnificent midfielder.

"It is not fair," he said when asked to talk about Lampard's continuing excellence.

"The rest of the team is doing a great job. We have to praise the rest of the players as well. Frank is a big player but the team as a team is doing well and we have to praise all the players."

Perhaps sensing that the surest way to ensure the word "interim" remains attached to his title is to oppose whatever it is that passes for official thinking at the Bridge, every time he has been asked about it these past few weeks Benitez has side-stepped any hint of support of Lampard's pursuit of a new contract.

And by his own estimate, the question count has long passed the century mark.

Rather than embrace speedy populism, Benitez was far more interested in talking up the collective.

Just three days after sinking at home to Swansea in the League Cup, his team had just shattered the last undefeated home record in the country.

No team had beaten Stoke in the Premier League at the Britannia by more than two goals.

Yet here were Chelsea winning by a score beyond United, City and anyone else who has visited the ground harbouring title aspirations. That was some signal of intent.

"It is signal that we have a good team and have good players with great character and we can manage every game in a different way if necessary,"said Benitez.

"If you can adapt and still win that means for me we are a top side."

On a freezing day in the Potteries, as he paced his technical area issuing those complex finger signals that require a degree in semaphore to decipher, Benitez was wearing just a suit jacket.

Maybe he knows he will not be around long enough to have a club coat fitted. Or maybe he was simply warmed by what he was watching.

Regardless of Tony Pulis' insistence that "it was never a 4-0", Stoke were dismantled here.

Lampard was immense; Juan Mata and Eden Hazard personified the word 'neat', with the latter dispatching a powerful late goal.

Chelsea even had, until the 70th minute when he succumbed to a knock, a forward in Demba Ba who seemed interested enough to run and chase and harry.

Though ultimately the visitors' matchwinner was wearing red and white stripes.

Poor Jonathan Walters: this was really not his day.

Picked on the right of Stoke's midfield, Walters' task had been to rise above Ashley Cole and supply knock-downs for Kenwyne Jones.

It was a sign of what lay in store, however, that Walters's first noticeable contribution was to volley the ball deftly into his own face.

Then, right on half-time, as Cesar Azpilicueta bent in a dipping cross, the Irish international dived in ahead of Mata to plant a spectacular diving header into the net. Unfortunately it was his own net.

This provoked Pulis to lambast the referee on the way to the dressing-room.

But it was not the official's fault that, early in the second half, Walters rose with Lampard to meet Mata's cross and again nodded the ball past his own goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic. As if that were not enough, he completed a hat-trick of a kind he will wish hurriedly to forget when he blasted a late consolation penalty – awarded when the fit-again John Terry, on as a substitute, had tripped him as he turned in the box – against the top of the crossbar and high into the stand.

"There's only one Jonny Walters," sang the visiting fans as he departed the pitch at the end, head stooped in embarrassment.

They are always a bunch quick to acknowledge someone doing his bit for the blue cause.

Unless his name happens to be 'Benitez', of course. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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