A Bridge too far

Posted by Miguel Delaney

Rafa BenitezPA PhotosRafa Benitez has had anything but an easy ride at Chelsea

Given what happened in the aftermath of Chelsea's FA Cup tie against Middlesbrough, it's rather remarkable to consider the passivity that preceded it.

Indeed, just after Rafa Benitez had given a relatively serene press conference on the eve of the game, a club employee who works quite close to him was asked whether the Spaniard's mood has changed; whether the club and all the controversy was getting to him.

"No, I don't think so at all," the Stamford Bridge official said. "He comes in, does his job as he always does, will talk the hind-legs off anyone as you see. He's been fine."

We now know that hasn't quite been the case.

Clearly, he's been bothered enough to ultimately boil over and deliver the kind of comments that are actually quite untypical of his time at the club so far. In fact, on every single previous occasion that he has been asked about the controversy or the cacophony of abuse he receives, he's always had a single prepared answer: "I do not notice because I am concentrating on the game."

We now also know that hasn't quite been the case. What is most surprising, though, is that it's not like the game he had been concentrating on was particularly testing - either in terms of emotion or opposition. Similarly, the chants will have been nothing new.

That does raise the question of whether something else set him off, which is always possible at this club; and particularly probable given the context of this appointment.

Along the same lines, though, this wasn't quite the 'rant' that was so readily portrayed. After an initial outburst, and despite a few slips of the tongue that indicated someone clearly venting frustration, Benitez did seem quite calm and in control by the end.

The big question now is whether he has also brought a premature end to a reign that was always going to be short.

The Chelsea hierarchy will hardly view this favourably, and certainly not his line to ITV - as opposed to the more general press conference - that "someone decided to put the title interim for me so that means my position from the beginning was weak". Within it, there was also a potential dig at a few high-profile squad members as he said: "I like to manage players and not names."

All that did smack of settling a score, and was quite reminiscent of the rancorous press conference after the 2010 World Club Cup final win which eventually saw him sacked from Inter within five days.
Whether he lasts that long at Chelsea remains to be seen. It is a rather charming coincidence, though, that their next match is against West Brom - the fixture that saw their last two managers get sacked.
To a degree, of course, his reaction is understandable. It's an impossible situation and one in which he has had to suffer a lot of abuse and pressure.

What is also understandable, though, is the fans' ire. For all the talk of spoiled supporters and a supposedly horrible club atmosphere, this was a man who initially questioned their very integrity as fans, even if, as he also pointed out, it was to score an advantage in an intense Champions League semi-final.

And, despite all that, it is also understandable why he took the job. Those close to him say, when debating whether he should accept, he was insistent that a top-four place and possibly a trophy - maybe even an outside shot at the title - would get him back in the managerial circuit and put him in contention for three specifically targeted jobs in the summer: the most obvious being the one at the Bernabeu.

And, to a point, it seemed as if all the parties had just about come to an uneasy alliance to achieve all their goals. While it might not have been smooth, Chelsea did look like they had the capacity to just about surf the waves and stay on course for a top four.

Now, it's all up for grabs again. Not least, potentially, the position of manager. And, in a story with so many questions from the very start, there are a few elements which are much less understandable.

First of all, there's the most pertinent question of all: Why did Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy inflict this situation on the club to begin with? It was always a bizarre choice given the history. Many drew parallels with Brian Clough and Leeds United, and it is possible Benitez may have 99 days to go with that infamous 44 at Elland Road.

Secondly, there is the ongoing - if not the initial - unrest of the fans. While they were right to be unhappy with his appointment at the start, there does come a point where you live with it and just see it out, if still not accepting it - particularly when it was so patently clear that this was never going to go past May anyway. They could have coldly ignored him while backing the team. It would have offered the same sense of protest, but without the same potentially damaging effects and constantly angry backdrop.

Finally, though, there's Benitez's timing.

Having done so well, and evidently fought so hard, to keep his true feelings down for so long, he could have continued to maintain that uneasy alliance and just about secured the top four.

Now, if he doesn't immediately lose his job and damage his prospects of the Real Madrid position right now, he has created the kind of controversy that may well destabilise his team for the rest of the season - as well as those chances of the Bernabeu. Ultimately, Benitez needs to see out this season successfully to have a chance of the jobs he most wants.

The flipside, of course, is that there are no more politics, no more face-saving comments. In that, this might bring an odd catharsis to all parties. The entire situation really is that curious.

What is not curious, though, is the one line that captured all the headlines: Benitez has confirmed he is gone in May. It was the one element of this entire story that has never been in doubt.

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