Saturday 25 January 2020

James Lawton: Rafa walks alone in hostile introduction to a divided Chelsea

James Lawton

If ever a football man needed to hear a friendly voice, or feel the warmth of a moment's grace, it was surely Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge when even the cold of the enveloping night seemed to be reserved expressly for him.

Yet wherever he looked he saw the face of hostility, the terrible sense of a football crowd made angry by its belief that some of its deepest passions and most eagerly embraced alliances had been simply tossed aside.

Even the normally inscrutable owner of all he surveys, Roman Abramovich, seemed at least briefly shaken by the force of the reaction when his new coach appeared.

All these years he has been doing pretty much as he pleased at Chelsea – and why not? He owns the place in that way that makes the yearnings of fans and their sense of propriety so easily shot down into the smallest pieces.

However, never before in all the firings, and even the dismissal of the hugely popular Jose Mourinho, had there had been a show of dissatisfaction quite like this.

Indeed, there was just one possibility that some of the worst of the taunting, and the waves of anger that poured down from the stands on to the head of Chelsea's new interim manager, might ease.

Alas, that possibility quickly disappeared. Fernando Torres, the lost striker Benitez has promised to save, emerged from another nightmarish performance with one glowing chance in the second half on a day that was arguably the most bitter in the history of a club which – it seemed so strange to remember – used to have a reputation for extreme amiability.

But as Manchester City, the reigning champions who would have represented such a valuable scalp for the player's would-be redeemer, fell back on their goal, Torres lashed a left-foot shot over the bar.

A moment of precision, maybe some early evidence that Benitez might indeed revive the £50m man who has been such of a source of accumulating embarrassment for Abramovich, would certainly have deflected a little of the rage that filled the ground – and reached a new level in the 16th minute, when the fallen Champions League-winning coach Roberto Di Matteo was loudly remembered.

This surge of protest was carefully synchronised to recall the sacked manager's No 16 jersey in his days as a Chelsea player, but Benitez, as energetic as ever on his return to the touchline after his firing by Internazionale in 2010, could be under no illusion that it spoke of an animosity that runs deep and will plainly only be reduced by a steady diet of winning football.

But then Benitez knew precisely what he was facing when he agreed to step into the place of Di Matteo.

Certainly it was as bad, this first immersion into the current maelstrom of Chelsea affairs, as he could have imagined when he agreed to become arguably one of the most embattled interim managers football has ever seen.

What he found was a raw distaste, if not hatred. It seeped through the afternoon and into the evening. One queue of Chelsea fans waited to be photographed beside a large placard which announced, "Rafa You'll Always Walk Alone".

Before kick-off the boos were so intense that it was only the announcement of the saddest news – the death of the great and conspicuously decent former Chelsea manager Dave Sexton – that brought a pause.

It was an occasion when there was just too much raw feeling in the air for such moments of reflection. It was one that might just have been soothed a little by a more convincing Chelsea performance but Benitez must have suspected that this was a day not to conquer but to survive.

His hopes for conquest improved somewhat in the second half, but there were times when his manner was touched with desperation.

It was not so hard to understand, even in a man of Benitez's wide range of experience. He has known the sublime and the wretched days but the fact is there was no easy category in which to place this one.

It was not so much about him, when you thought about it, but the powerful sense that, for a little while at least, a huge football club had been virtually cut in two.

Irish Independent

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