Tuesday 21 November 2017

Rafa faces summer exit door at Chelsea

Under pressure: Rafael Benitez
Under pressure: Rafael Benitez

Paul Kelso

Rafael Benitez believes he could be a target for Real Madrid in the summer if his spell as interim manager at Chelsea ends with the sack at the end of the season.

The Spaniard has not entirely given up hope of being awarded the Chelsea post on a permanent basis, but following a second home defeat in a week, his prospects of winning Roman Abramovich's long-term approval may have faded.

Benitez remains fully committed to Chelsea and the task of securing Champions League football - a feat that would be mutually beneficial to the club and a coach who is restating his qualifications to manage at the highest level after two years away from the game.

With only five months of his contract to run and Abramovic's intentions unclear – the Russian has been fixated on tempting Pep Guardiola to Stamford Bridge – Benitez's advisors have already turned their attention to what his next move might be. While there has been no direct contact from Madrid, they have had enough encouragement to believe that Benitez may be in club president Florentino Perez's thoughts in the summer if, as expected, Jose Mourinho, is shown the door.

The prospect of Benitez taking charge at the Bernabeu may seem fanciful to hostile Chelsea fans, who have seen their side beaten at home by QPR and Swansea in the space of seven days. But Benitez hinted publicly before Christmas that he could be a target for Madrid, the club where he began his coaching career.

Asked on Spanish radio to confirm that there was interest he said: "I know things, but I think I shouldn't say..." The fact that Benitez's advisors are considering their options reflects the instability inherent in his appointment as only an interim manager at Chelsea. While the title means he and the club are spared endless questions about his future, it has locked the club into a period of uncertainty.

Pressure on Benitez increased with the 2-0 defeat to Swansea in the first-leg of the League Cup semi-final, a result that was played out in the most poisonous atmosphere of his 14-game tenure at Stamford Bridge.

Benitez, chairman Bruce Buck and, strikingly, Fernando Torres, were all targeted by fans, with the derision reserved for the Spanish forward particularly striking. With portions of the crowd calling for Demba Ba during the second half, patience with Torres finally appears to have run out.

Despite dominating for long periods and creating numerous chances, Chelsea paid for two mistakes by Branislav Ivanovic and face going out of a fourth competition of the season before the end of January.

The Community Shield, European Super Cup and World Club Cup have all come and gone and it is generous to consider that Chelsea are still players in the title race. In a fortnight's time they could have only the FA Cup and the Europa League as realistic targets, thin gruel after a £75m summer spend on new talent.

It may be too soon for even the trigger-happy Abramovic to consider hiring a second interim manager in a single season, but it will not have lightened his mood as he monitors developments from the Caribbean sun-spot where he is wintering.

Abramovic's priority remains ensuring that Chelsea return to the Champions League with a place in the top-four, a feat that proved beyond Roberto Di Matteo's side last season, though they compensated by winning the competition.

There is an appreciation inside the club that Benitez is working with limited scope. His short-term contract has robbed him of some authority and he has limited input into transfer policy. He is also working with a squad which, while highly talented, is a blend of young players still finding their way and an old guard increasingly wary of joining Frank Lampard in receipt of their P45. Uncertainty must run deep.

The top-four ambition remains on track, though recent results have dampened optimism slightly. Benitez has overseen hefty victories, with Chelsea putting eight past Aston Villa, six past FC Nordsjaelland and five past Southampton and Leeds. But there have been defeats too, away to West Ham and now two in a week at home, where Mourinho remained unbeaten for three years.

Defender Gary Cahill admitted after the Swansea defeat that he was puzzled by the vulnerability at home: "I don't know (what has happened) with our home form.

"Normally, we are unbelievably hard to beat at Stamford Bridge and we've been getting results. We just have to be consistent in what we are doing," he said. "Sometimes we are playing fantastic stuff like you saw last week against Southampton and Everton, but then we chuck it away against QPR and now Swansea. We're finding it difficult at the moment when teams camp in and put up two blocks of four to break down."

The most impressive result of Benitez's reign was the 2-1 win at Everton in the last game of 2012, a win achieved from a goal down that had the whiff of the old remorseless Chelsea about it.

He will hope to see a return to that form in a testing trip to Stoke tomorrow, a game followed by home matches against Southampton and Arsenal before the League Cup second leg in a fortnight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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