Monday 20 November 2017

Respect will be enough for now

He may never win hearts at Stamford Bridge but Rafa Benitez will hope to bring order to the chaos, writes Dion Fanning

Managing Chelsea is the hardest job in football and it is the easiest job in football. Roberto Di Matteo left Chelsea last week a fallen hero, a man wronged on the whim of an owner who doesn't understand the game.

Di Matteo had become Chelsea manager on the whim of the same owner who didn't understand the game and as a result of six performances that combined attitude, determination and lots of luck he ended up as a European Cup-winning manager.

Di Matteo left Chelsea last week with his reputation enhanced less than two years after he had left West Brom with his reputation diminished.

Roman Abramovich's decision to sack Di Matteo months after Chelsea's incredible achievement in Munich was said by many to be the craziest of many crazy decisions. Alex Ferguson called Rafael Benitez "lucky" to have been given the job on Friday, something that could have been said with more validity about Di Matteo.

Last May, Chelsea's then interim manager climbed the steps at the Allianz Arena towards the owner of the club. "I did it," he said. "I did it." Chelsea had just won the Champions League in the most improbable of circumstances.

Abramovich could have been forgiven for wondering who exactly had done it. Di Matteo had been in the job for less than three months; Abramovich had spent a billion pounds turning the club into European Cup winners. At that moment, Abramovich may have felt like Tony Soprano when he decided that Christopher no longer appreciated the dynamic of their relationship. Abramovich may have thought that he was looking at a man who didn't value all that he had been given.

Yet Di Matteo is loved by Chelsea fans. There have been mutterings of revolt and calls for Ron Gourlay, the chief executive, and Bruce Buck, the chairman, to go. Few have called for Abramovich to leave the club. One billion pounds buys a lot of residual affection.

Abramovich was said to be ruthless last week when it was a simple decision. Di Matteo had accepted the job as the man who would give Abramovich what he wanted but he was to discover that sometimes attempting to please a man who always gets what he wants can be dangerous too.

Di Matteo's decision to drop Fernando Torres for the game in Turin made no difference, despite reports that it cost him his job. Abramovich wanted to dismiss Di Matteo last weekend but was persuaded to wait until after the game against Juventus. Immediately after that defeat, newspapers were already reporting that there had been direct contact between Benitez and Abramovich.

The Chelsea fans' anger has been directed at Buck, Gourlay and, most notably, Benitez. It may not be an easy job for him.

* * * * *

Rafael Benitez rarely makes it easy. It is his nature to work hard and to demand that others do too. It is his nature to search for the weaknesses and try to eradicate them. His demanding and obsessive nature may be suited to the job at Chelsea, especially as he is not trying to create a dynasty or win a political battle.

He remains a coach who knows what he wants and how to get it, which is rarer than some think. "To be first is the only thing I understand," he said on Friday.

He had waited for this opportunity for nearly two years. There had been offers and there were times when some close to him felt that he should work rather than wait for the perfect job.

Benitez's perfectionism and his self-belief thought differently. Every month there was at least one club expressing some interest, every month Benitez would add to his already ample research with an in-depth study and, every time, he would hesitate.

He wanted to work in England, he wanted to challenge for trophies and Chelsea came along and gave him that opportunity, although not quite the perfect opportunity.

"How many top sides are available or have been available in the last two years?" he says when asked why he was prepared to do a job on the interim basis. "Not too many. So if you have five or eight top managers and only one or two teams available, you do not have too many chances. So for me I was waiting for the right one and it was not there. Now I have one and I think I can do a good job."

He believes that he is among the elite coaches in the world and his CV offers more encouragement to that idea than to the notion that he is fortunate or limited.

In his final year at Liverpool, the weaknesses in his own personality fed perfectly into the dysfunction at the club. His obsessiveness went in search of every battle and, inevitably, his strength became his weakness.

He may reject the idea that he was distracted by those battles but he would also reject the idea that he needs to sleep or rest.

On Friday, he was asked, in the context of Pep Guardiola's sabbatical, if he had found the time out of the game relaxing. His break was different, he said, as it was forced on him, but it may have done him good. "What I can guarantee is when you come back you are more focused, you have better vision and you have more commitment. Sometimes when you are working, you are working so hard that you don't see everything."

In the new year, Guardiola's presence will hang over Benitez, as well as other managers. Yet the circumstances of this job have altered his expectations. He joked that if Chelsea talked to Guardiola, "I don't think they would let me know." He is, he insists, relaxed about that prospect because nobody at Chelsea is making promises that won't be kept.

Benitez slept on the flight from Abu Dhabi to London on Wednesday. He had spent the day at a conference and some time thinking about the ideas he had for Chelsea but, for once, he appreciated the value in rest.

By the time he had dinner with Roman Abramovich on Thursday night, he was, as he always is, full of these ideas. "I talk a lot," he said with a smile when asked who had done the talking. Abramovich's message was clear. He may want Chelsea to play like Barcelona but he will be happy, or happy for now, if Chelsea play like Benitez's Liverpool of 2008/'09 or his Valencia side that was known as 'the Crushing Machine'.

Benitez doesn't have an easy personality – his idea of small talk is to explain why Liverpool switched to a back three against Juventus seven years ago – but it isn't cold either. Last week former players like Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano – who would be ideal for Benitez's Chelsea – called to wish him well.

But it is another former player who will hope he gains most from Benitez's arrival. In Benitez's final season at Liverpool, Fernando Torres may have become weary of his manager's constant demand for improvement but, in the previous three years, Torres had been moulded into the world's most feared striker.

If Benitez always demanded more, Torres usually responded to the challenge. He also felt like an important player at Liverpool, so important that when the club would travel for games in Asia, the rest of the squad would let Torres leave the plane so he could draw all the autograph-hunters. They could then walk through the airport with the minimum of fuss.

Torres has been backed by Chelsea fans since his arrival but this season they have become more frustrated. The idea that Benitez has been brought in to get the best out of Torres may cool the relationship between the supporters and Torres further, especially if it doesn't work. Torres has changed since he last worked with Benitez and he would probably be desperate for whatever ideas Benitez has to help him.

Torres will start against Manchester City today and Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard – a player Benitez tried to sign at Liverpool – are expected to play behind him. Benitez believes he can make Chelsea more solid defensively by altering the positioning of the three players brought in to feed Torres which would stop opposing full-backs getting forward.

When he has had the players, Benitez's sides have played more football than sometimes credited, although everybody wants to play like Barcelona.

On Friday, Benitez was asked if Barcelona's style could be copied, given that they have a number of the world's greatest midfield players and Lionel Messi.

He stressed the importance of continuity, highlighting the fact that Xavi has been at Barcelona for 20 years and plays with players like Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Messi. "They know each other, they know the style, so that's a big difference."

Abramovich does things differently too but Benitez says Chelsea's owner is not demanding that they play one way. "He's not desperate that we have to play the Barcelona style. He wants to play well. He wants to enjoy watching games. The way to enjoy is to see your team winning, and attacking and creating chances. The way that we create chances could be passing the ball or with a long ball. It's just to see his team with this attacking mentality and creating chances."

Benitez may wish to make Chelsea more aggressive. At his best, Benitez loved the unexpected, sending out a side to go on the attack when they were protecting a lead. It didn't always work – the first half in Istanbul was supposed to put Milan on the defensive – and he may be more reluctant initially at Chelsea as he is understood to have concerns about the fitness of this Chelsea squad.

Benitez won't attempt to win the fans over with forced gestures of affection. His confirmation on Friday that Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard will probably leave the club at the end of the season has angered Chelsea fans in search of a grievance. His comment that this was something being handled elsewhere at the club was overlooked but he would have been better off avoiding the issue.

The root of the anger towards him appears to be the fierceness of the rivalry between Chelsea and Liverpool when he was manager, although the outrage has stemmed from a series of embellished and false remarks. Of course the source of the anger doesn't really matter, what matters is that it exists.

Benitez will hope that a team that is winning and challenging for trophies will win fans over or at least prevent the atmosphere becoming overwhelmingly hostile.

Abramovich is content with his decision having always been reluctant to appoint Di Matteo but felt he had no option after the victory in Munich.

Chelsea accept that they do things differently to other clubs, due in part to what somebody called last week their "unique ownership structure".

Benitez is an unlikely choice but then again nobody can figure out the mind of Abramovich. Di Matteo tried to please him and tried to be as inoffensive as possible and that didn't work. The lack of faith from above may have manifested itself in the constant questions to Di Matteo and the reported demand that, for example, he had to explain the thinking behind his substitutions against Liverpool.

Benitez has only his own ideas and anyone who asks him to explain his substitutions should be prepared to be there for some time. Benitez goes into the job with low expectations but also with the only expectation he has ever known. "I expect to win."

The rest has been removed from him and he could be gone next summer no matter what he achieves.

"I know the situation. I have come in here to improve the team because I can. I have come to create a competitive team and to win trophies and if I can win trophies for the club I will be really happy."

He may never be loved at Chelsea but he may bring order where there is chaos. Benitez may then be happy although making Benitez happy is a tough job. Making Roman Abramovich happy is the toughest job of all.

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