Benitez and the John Terry conundrum

Posted by Phil Lythell

Michael Regan/Getty ImagesIn Chelsea's bigger matches Rafa Benitez has frequently left veteran defender John Terry on the bench.

Almost four months after Roman Abramovich made the extraordinary decision to replace Roberto Di Matteo with Rafael Benitez, the upturn in fortunes that the Russian must have expected as result of his actions has failed to materialise.

- Mikel sticks up for Benitez

Far from engineering a revolution, the former Liverpool boss has made few tactical changes to the team that his predecessor left him bar keeping exhilarating attacking displays to a minimum -- the comeback at Old Trafford on Sunday excepted. Chelsea's football has become a little more direct with the Spaniard hoping to transfer the ball from defence to attack more quickly in an attempt to restore Fernando Torres to his former glory. It is a tactic that has not had any impact on the striker and has mainly resulted in Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard watching the ball fly over their heads when it should be pinging between their feet.

The fullbacks have been asked to be more frugal in their attempts to join the attack to make the team less susceptible to the counter, and although that has been marginally more successful, it has also made Chelsea a much narrower threat when going forward, blunting them in the process. In fact, the most striking factor of Benitez's tenure -- if the unprecedented, if wholly expected, hostility from supporters is removed from the argument -- has been the enduring omission of John Terry from first team action in the games that matter.

In the early part of the manager's reign, Terry was unavailable for selection after suffering a painful injury against Liverpool which meant that the team was shorn of a natural leader and a formidable centre back. Once Terry began training again, the manager started to trot out the excuse that the club captain was still striving for full fitness. Several weeks later that excuse has been exposed as a smokescreen.

Benitez has seen fit to play Terry for 90 minutes in the Europa League and in FA Cup games against lower league opposition, though when Premier League opponents hove into view, the former England skipper is suddenly considered to be surplus to requirements.

The question is why?

Clearly, it is the manager's right to select whoever he deems to be the best man for the job and he also has to manage a small playing squad through an arduous fixture list. Perhaps he simply doesn't fancy Terry as a player of sufficient quality, whether it’s due to the waning of his abilities or the presence of better options at his disposal. One of the last meaningful matches in which Benitez selected him in his starting eleven was the enthralling but galling 3-2 defeat at Newcastle at the beginning of February where it was the defender's mistake that turned the match. Terry's injudicious and rash attempt at an interception on the halfway line was clinically punished by Moussa Sissoko who ran on to make it 2-2. Since that day on Tyneside, Terry has been condemned to the substitutes' bench in the Premier League.

In place of him, Benitez has generally preferred to select Gary Cahill with Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz rotating as his centre back partner. Cahill is a very capable defender, though it is debatable as to whether he is quite ready to fill Terry's considerably-sized boots. He is a good communicator and his pace has been crucial in denying opponents goal-scoring opportunities, notably against Manchester City, though often those situations have arisen due to a positional error of his own. His reading of the game is good but not exceptional, and were he not to be fleet of foot, there would be absolutely no contest between him and Terry. As it is, Terry still appears to be the more accomplished defender despite the battering his body has received over the years

Luiz continues to perplex with Sunday's FA Cup tie at Old Trafford being ideal example of his Jekyll and Hyde nature. The Brazilian spent most of the first half all at sea alongside Cahill, but then came out after halftime and put in a brilliant display -- both with the ball at his feet and when executing his defensive duties. There is certainly a great player in there somewhere though perhaps not a consistently dependable defender. Out of the three, Ivanovic is perhaps the most trustworthy but even he is fallible as seen by his two unfortunate mistakes against Swansea that saw Chelsea's chances of glory in the Capital One Cup go up in smoke. It is instructive to see that his errors have not seen the same ruthless reaction from the manager as Terry received after the Newcastle game.

There could be an argument to suggest that Benitez is merely carrying on the work begun by Andre Villas-Boas as the club seek to build a new team for the future. As part of the process, there is a well-publicised school of thought that Abramovich is seeking to remove the old cadre of senior players and that Terry is being frozen out of the picture with just 15 months left on his contract in the same way that Frank Lampard is being slowly ushered towards the exit.

Although that idea does appear to be correct -- especially when taking into account the unwelcome, lurid front page headlines generated by Terry over the past 18 months -- the theory that Benitez is a willing participant in the subterfuge falls flat when faced with the knowledge that he is only going to be in charge for a matter of weeks. His focus is only on enhancing his credentials for future employment elsewhere so a more credible reason might be that he is merely showing other club owners that he is not afraid of making tough decisions and that he is of strong enough character to omit a player that has been such a talisman for Chelsea over the past decade.

Whatever the thought process in Benitez's head, it is not currently helping Chelsea on the pitch. Yes, the second half display at Old Trafford was hugely encouraging and was done without either of the club's outfield stalwarts, Terry and Lampard. On the field, though, with so many important games forthcoming, a certain degree of experience and composure will be needed. Obviously, players have to merit their place in the side no matter how big their reputations are, though at the moment, Chelsea are hardly blessed with the most effective or organised defence. Surely their captain would only improve that area of the team.

Terry has not lost any pace because, as the old football cliché goes, he never had any to begin with. His understanding of the game has not been affected though perhaps his sharpness has been and the only way to rectify that is to play him play regularly and against testing opposition, something that Benitez is clearly not prepared to do.

Commendably, Terry has said all the right things when pressed on the subject and there do not seem to be any negative stories being leaked to the press from him or his entourage. The 32-year-old is continuing to act like the ultimate professional he has always been -- irrespective of his other transgressions -- and his apparent acceptance of the situation and his surprising humility could well see him work himself back into Benitez's thinking should the Spaniard choose to soften his stubborn stance.

But I wouldn't hold your breath.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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