Monday 20 January 2020

Rafa's statement of intent risks falling on deaf ears

Jeremy Wilson

Only 60 seconds had passed last night before Rafael Benitez made a first subtle statement to the 42,000 mostly sceptical Chelsea fans.

Having initially made a rather more anonymous entrance than on Sunday, when his introduction provoked a chorus of boos around Stamford Bridge, Benitez marched straight to the edge of the pitch.

And there he remained for most of the remaining 90 minutes, constantly barking out order to his team, never hiding, even when supporters began singing for Roberto Di Matteo, and clearly not remotely intimidated by the hostility that has greeted his appointment. That Benitez is going to do this his way was also evident from the team sheet. Dropped was Juan Mata, Chelsea's most creative player this season, in favour of solidity on the left of midfield in the form of Ryan Bertrand.

The team shape was also reorganised. Oriol Romeu, an intelligent holding midfield player who has been schooled by the Barcelona academy, started only his third league match of the season in central midfield alongside the combative Ramires.

The formation was a compact 4-4-1-1, with Eden Hazard dispatched wide on the right and Oscar playing as a second striker, very much in the old Steven Gerrard role, behind Fernando Torres. Just as Benitez rarely strayed from the edge of his technical area, it was also notable that his players remained rigidly within a few yards of their starting position throughout the game. That Chelsea were well organised and already look far more defensively secure was beyond question.

Results rather than aesthetics have always been Benitez's priority and he has clearly not changed during nearly two years out of football. Quite what Roman Abramovich made of it, as he gazed down impassively from his box, would be anybody's guess.

Given his mute public persona, it is hardly surprising that Abramovich is surrounded as much by myth as what Benitez would call facts. It is constantly said that he craves and expects entertainment, but the appointment of Benitez suggests that being more difficult to beat has been the priority.

Benitez's programme notes and pre-match press comments also underlined that point as he extracted a short list of positives from Sunday's goalless draw against Manchester City.

"We have different players and we can play attacking and defensive football together. We have to find the balance," he said.

The big problem for Benitez, however, is that he must achieve that balance in an environment of such limited patience. Jeers rang out around Stamford Bridge last night at half-time and there was even displeasure being expressed on Chelsea's official club Twitter account. After 35 minutes, the match was summed up in one word.

"Boring," it said. A corner to Chelsea was then followed with the observation: "I don't need to tell you that nothing comes of it".

The very real danger is not that Benitez will be affected by a climate of negativity but that it will seep into the consciousness of the players. Whether Benitez can quickly halt that vicious circle is likely to define whether he becomes just another managerial statistic of the Abramovich era. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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