Friday 27 April 2018

James Lawton: 'Why always me' refrain starts to ring hollow for bitter Benitez

When it came, finally, the rage of Rafa Benitez had two specific targets. It was directed at those fans who have worked so relentlessly to make his life a misery and the hierarchy of Chelsea whom he believes have done too little to protect him from the worst of some systematic hostility.

Benitez, plainly, is due a degree of sympathy. The disdain he has suffered since rushing from exile and into the shoes of his popular predecessor Roberto Di Matteo is unique in the annals of big-time football.

Unfortunately, though, there has to be another perspective and it insists that, in this case, the victim has to be included in the circle of blame.

Benitez did not dispute the terms of his employment. He dashed to replace Di Matteo and it is only now that he speaks of his designation as "interim manager" as a massive mistake.

The reality is that after two years of unemployment, which grated so hard on a winner of the Champions League and two La Liga titles, he believed he could take the job on anyone's terms and then make them his own.

It said a lot more for Benitez's enduring self-belief after being sacked by both Liverpool and Inter Milan than any realistic appraisal of the situation he inherited at Stamford Bridge.

The reality was that you could have scoured through every corner of football and failed to come up with a less appropriate marriage.

Chelsea merely confirmed their status as a club utterly detached from even a token understanding of such qualities as trust and reward when they fired Di Matteo just six months after winning the Champions League.

For Benitez, it was an unsullied dream that his dearest wish had come true. He was back with a leading club and hell-bent on re-establishing a reputation that had splintered so badly since his extraordinary triumph in a Champions League final in Istanbul in 2005.

Yet it was still hard to know which was more bizarre, Abramovich's approach or Benitez's belief that his style of management – heavy on authority and the superiority of his own views on tactics and rotation – would begin to work in the peculiar, almost anarchic circumstances of his new challenge.

Naturally, Benitez was driven by the assumption that it would. He had to be and, for a while, there was a little buoyancy in his confidence that he could tighten the defence, renovate the stricken Fernando Torres, who had played for him with such freedom at Anfield, and produce a set of results that would bring a clamour for him to stay.

By Wednesday and the FA Cup victory at Middlesbrough there was certainly a clamour, but it was the old one that he should go.

So, Benitez snapped, and the consequences when Chelsea play West Brom tomorrow are only likely to underline the formality of his departure by the end of the season, if not before.

Benitez's heaviest critics were not slow to see a familiar pattern in his attack on the fans, which came so soon after persistent reports of tension between him and veteran players.

He suggested that if Chelsea fail to qualify for next season's Champions League – a minimum requirement when he reported for duty last November – the protesting supporters would have to take their share of responsibility.

"I have been in charge in football for 26 years," he declared, "I have won the Champions League, the Club World Cup, the FA Cup, the Italian Super Cup, the Spanish League twice, nine trophies, all the trophies you can win at club level.

"If they (his detractors in the crowd) put players under pressure and don't create a good atmosphere at Stamford Bridge they have to realise they are making a big mistake, because the rest of the fans would like to see the team in the Champions League next year."

It is, many would argue, a deflection of blame that became familiar in his dwindling days at Liverpool.

Then, the problem was the American ownership, despite the fact that they still gave him the means to go into the transfer market – but unfortunately without any significant effect.

Behind this week's drama there has also been a hugely ironic possibility. It is that Jose Mourinho, Benitez's old and bitter foe and currently occupying the job he is said to most covet, has produced compelling evidence that if any football man was ever equipped to survive and flourish in the maelstrom of Chelsea, it is surely him.

The night before Benitez appeared to seal his own fate at Chelsea, Mourinho's Real were brilliantly ransacking Barcelona at the Nou Camp.

On Tuesday, Real's superbly restored counter-attacking game arrives menacingly at Old Trafford. It is almost poignant to think of the rapture which might greet Mourinho's return to Stamford Bridge, possibly with his reputation further enhanced by the unique distinction of winning three European titles at different clubs.

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What he would bring also is something that will clearly never be part of Benitez's armoury – the ability to ride the worst of controversy and find in it the capacity to go forward.

This, for the moment at least, is something that Mourinho has conjured almost magically against the background of his anticipated departure from the Bernabeu, whatever his fate in the Champions League.

For Benitez, such a possibility has never looked quite so remote. He believes he is in the running for the Real job. Plainly, he still has faith in the lustre of his name and his ability to impose a winning culture wherever he finds himself.

What he does seem to have grasped, though, is that his methods are never likely to succeed at Chelsea.

That, surely, was the implication of this week's rant. On the face of things, it was a sore and passionate reaction to all the weeks and months of hurt.

Perhaps it was also an admission that he had come to the wrong place, one where in his case there was probably never a right time. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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