No hiding place for Rafael Benitez in face of Chelsea fury
Rafael Benitez will take charge of Chelsea at a hugely hostile Stamford Bridge tomorrow having received no assurances about his future following his criticism of supporters who have abused him since he took charge 100 days ago.
Benitez took training as usual yesterday but, despite meeting with club chief executive Ron Gourlay and technical director Michael Emanalo, it is understood that his immediate future was not discussed by either man.
Doubts over his future were raised after Benitez said supporters who booed him were "wasting their time" and affecting the team, and that his 'interim manager' title was "a big mistake".
While Gourlay's visit was plainly an attempt to take the temperature at Cobham following Benitez's comments and recent signs of tensions with senior players, club insiders said he did not raise the issue of the post-match comments following Chelsea's 2-0 FA Cup win at Middlesbrough.
Benitez is understood to have discussed the Middlesbrough match with Emanalo and raised the issue of his comments himself, insisting that they were aimed at a small group of supporters rather than the board or owner Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea moved to try and limit speculation over Benitez's position yesterday morning, with a spokesman saying it was "business as usual". The board is understood to have taken the view that, given the level of abuse Benitez has had to absorb from supporters, his comments were understandable.
The club acknowledge the Spaniard spoke out because he believes the poisonous atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, and away from home, is affecting the team, and trust his judgment given his daily contact with the players.
There is also a belief that having asked Benitez to take on a role that leaves him particularly exposed, they should allow him to try and complete the job he was hired to do.
Benitez believes his relationship with Abramovich is solid, though they have not spoken for five weeks.
Whether this outlook will survive a poor result against West Brom is another matter, and it remains possible that defeat could see him sacked. Avram Grant is a clear contender to take charge at short notice and is remembered fondly by some players for his hands-off approach in his previous spell in charge.
Steve Holland, a coach at the club, is also a possible stand-in, but given these options, pragmatism suggests the club will stick with Benitez in the hope that he can deliver the minimum target of Champions League football next season.
Long term, Jose Mourinho remains keen on a return to Stamford Bridge and the club have shown interest in Manuel Pellegrino and David Moyes. Fabio Capello is also considered a candidate.
Speaking yesterday, Benitez said he was happy with his relationship with Abramovic, and repeated his view that the supporters could cost the team.
"My relationship with the owner is really good," he said. "Every time I talk to Abramovich about football, I enjoy (it). I know that he wants to win. I'm here because he wants to win and I will try to do my best until the last day.
"The relationship is fine. I don't have any problem with anyone. I have conversations with Michael Emenalo, the technical director, every single day.
"He watches the training sessions, we talk about football and when I meet Roman Abramovich, we talk like normal people. We share a passion for football."
Despite Benitez's confidence, he is still likely to face a poisonous atmosphere at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, with some supporters groups openly celebrating the fact that the manager is stung by abuse.
David Chidget of the Chelsea FanCast said: "The atmosphere is going to be both toxic and electric at Stamford Bridge this weekend and I fear the abuse will be even worse for Benitez now. Benitez's true colours have finally come to light and there is a definite sense among Chelsea fans that they've got to him."
Benitez said continued abuse would be counter-productive. "Everybody knows that I will finish my contract at the end of the season, so I think that this group of fans, singing, creating banners or whatever, they have to concentrate on supporting the team."
West Brom manager Steve Clarke, likely to receive a better reception than Benitez, said that the Chelsea job remained hugely attractive despite the tensions.
"It's a job that anybody would want to take. If you're manager of a club like Chelsea you know what comes with the territory," he said. "The connections with me are inevitable. Chelsea has been a big part of my life." (© Daily Telegraph, London)