Tuesday 12 December 2017

Return of Benitez bravado

He may prefer that understated, disarming style of projecting himself, but after more than two years out of the English game, Rafael Benitez walked into Stamford Bridge and reminded everyone that, when it comes to it, this man is as tough as they come.

In the space of 40 minutes, he dispatched his former employers Internazionale for having broken promises to him; he reminded everyone that Liverpool's former co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett reached the point where they were not even speaking to one another; and he established on more than one occasion he would not have considered managing a mid-table club.

When his credibility was challenged his response was blunt. "Have you seen my CV? I have all the trophies you can win at club level."

When it was pointed out to him that he had never won the Premier League, his response was that neither had Pep Guardiola, but both of them had won the Spanish equivalent.

It was not the performance of a man concerned about what the Chelsea fans might think when he takes his place in the home dugout at 4.0 on Sunday for that crucial Premier League game against Manchester City. It was the Benitez of old: unflappable, a man on whom it is impossible to land a blow and one who responded to the toughest questions with a wry amusement.


There was a sharp intake of breath in the room when he clarified that he had taken the job having not yet met Roman Abramovich, the man whose opinion is all that matters when it comes to this particular show. From Benitez's point of view, he no doubt sees that from the other point of view: that Abramovich is yet to have met him.

Yes, Rafa is back in English football and he is back on a stage which he feels is commensurate with his abilities as a manager. Given that he has waited so long, he was certainly not about to be concerned about his unpopularity with the Blues support and remarks in 2007 that he said he would "never manage" Chelsea in the build-up to the Champions League semi-final. That was, he said, simply a case of doing what he had to do as a manager.

"If I'm a fan, I'd like to see my manager fighting for my team, my club. So I don't think it's a lack of respect for the Chelsea fans. It's more a manager defending his team. I'm sure the fans here would like to see me doing the same now that I am here, defending their club."

The disillusionment with him from the Chelsea support is, however, very real and while it appears not to matter to Benitez, it will become uncomfortable for the club if results do not go well. As an individual, he is impervious to that sort of pressure. The ultimate rationalist, he reasoned that once a team begins winning then all the problems go away, but then this has never been a club that had followed any kind of rationale.

What was evident was that his relationship with technical director Michael Emenalo would be key to his success at Chelsea. In the past, technical directors have been a source of friction for Benitez, not least at Valencia, and subsequently at Liverpool he saw off all attempts to curb his power when it came to the acquisition of players.

Nevertheless, he mentioned Emenalo more than once as the man from whom he would take his lead.

As for his absence from the game, Benitez was keen to point out he had turned down plenty of other offers, "from other continents, for big money, for contracts of three to four years" for a club, preferably in England, at which he could compete for trophies. It was a theme he returned to more than once.

"When you analyse why you go to a top side like this, for seven months, it's because you can win trophies," he said. "For nearly two years I was waiting for the right opportunity. Now I have this chance. I have to try and take it."

The temporary nature of Benitez's contract, which has been pointedly described by the club as "interim" is not a status that he appears to recognise.

As ever he believes fervently in his own ability and that he will still be in a position to manage the team come the end of the season. The notion of short term, he intimated, simply does not apply to him. "I don't care about short-term. I have to win every game. We have five trophies to fight for. If we win some trophies in seven months, everybody will be delighted."

Holed up in his Wirral mansion for the last two years since he was sacked by Inter, he said he did not even consider himself to have been out the game.

"Out of the game is not out of the game, when you've been analysing games every weekend," he said.

"I was there, perhaps not on the pitch, but my passion for the game and forward thinking is still there. I haven't lost anything. And it's the opposite: I have more desire now than ever before."

There were the inevitable questions about Fernando Torres, whose best years Benitez will forever be connected, because he signed the player at Liverpool in 2007. The strength of that relationship has always been based on what Torres said about the influence of Benitez in an interview some time ago, but there are doubts about how strongly it endured.

As ever, Benitez was dismissive of questions of how he should win or with what players he should win with.

"I am not sure about what you read or hear. When I spoke with Michael Emenalo, he didn't say you had to do this or that. He just said, 'Listen, we trust you with anything you can do well, and you can do well with these players'."

Benitez has stepped into the crucible that is modern Chelsea, with its enormous expectations and its overwhelming pressure. But there was much to suggest yesterday that Chelsea have also taken on something of a challenge themselves. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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