Sunday, November 25, 2012
Chelsea cauldron greets Rafa
John Brewin, Stamford Bridge
He was hardly being wished good luck in his new job. "Rafa Benitez, you're not welcome here," sang the home fans. Boos greeted the same name in the pre-match PA announcements. "There's only one Di Matteo," swiftly followed.
Benitez would not be hiding. From the first whistle he was to be found on the touchline, his ample tailored suit ruffling in the November wind. Instructions were barked, semaphore signals were made, notes scribbled on a pad of paper. Whatever they say about him, he plans to get on with the job in hand.
"I was just concentrating on the game, on the performances of the players," said Chelsea's appointment by unpopular demand. "In England when the fans are singing in the stands I don't understand what they are saying but I am professional, I want to do my job. I want to win for the club, to win for them."
On 16 minutes, pre-organised applause rang out for deposed hero Roberto Di Matteo in deference to his shirt number as a player. "Rafa Out!" proclaimed a set of hastily-printed banners. "In Rafa we will never trust. Fact!" said another.
Amid such insurrection, it would have been understandable if Benitez was now yearning for George Gillett and Tom Hicks. An isolated stranger in previously enemy territory, the warmest gesture he received was a knowing smile from Mario Balotelli as the Manchester City substitute ran past him to warm up. For his association with Liverpool, and being a rather vocal nemesis of the Jose Mourinho era, Benitez is doubted for much besides his not being Roberto Di Matteo.
Yet he still looks happy to be back in the game. Benitez is no longer the 'Spanish waiter' in that his long exile is at an end. He may enjoy only a silent minority of support among the Chelsea faithful but that hardly matters in Roman Abramovich's world. What the Russian says goes and that is that. Up in the stands, the owner adopted his usual impassive arms-crossed pose of mild bemusement.
According to Benitez, his new boss offered words of encouragement after the 0-0 draw so for now, Rafa has the oligarch's ear. However, that is always a temporary state of being for a Chelsea manager, interim or otherwise. 'Robby' will not be forgotten, and will one day be welcomed back by Abramovich, who seems to enjoy cordial relations with the long list of managers he has removed from their post. Roman is probably not a person you would wish to remain enemies with for too long.
Nevertheless, there was rebellion in the air. Fans implored Ashley Cole to stay, to follow the singing of Frank Lampard's name. Benitez's Friday revelation that both will leave the Bridge at the end of the season has hardened hearts against the current hierarchy.
Chairman Bruce Buck and chief executive Ron Gourlay were singled out, though no-one was to be heard voicing dissent against the man whose bidding they carry out. The banner on the Matthew Harding stand that says 'The Roman Empire' reminds of the billion reasons why Chelsea are where they are.
By Roman decree, Fernando Torres, the infamous substitute of Turin, and the Achilles Heel of the last three of Chelsea's sacked managers, started the game. Anonymity was swiftly adopted, before, at the end of the first half, a segue of stumbling control and a rather reckless lunge reminded of the reasons behind the decision that Di Matteo took on Tuesday. On the hour, a golden chance came but was blazed over. This is not the same Torres that Benitez had at his Liverpool disposal; the nerveless finisher is now a bag of nerves.
"He was trying very hard," Benitez said before offering a simplistic solution to the problem. "Still the team has to help Fernando. We create more chances and we score more goals."
Chewing gum in the manner of sworn enemies Ferguson and Allardyce, Benitez was a late arrival for the second half. It meant that he avoided the boo chorus as play had already started. Whatever was written on his sheet of paper had made some kind of effect. Chelsea improved for a while, as did the quality of entertainment. The first half had reminded of the encounters between Benitez's Liverpool and Chelsea that Jorge Valdano once labelled 's*** on a stick'.
With cap doffed towards West Bromwich Albion, it was often difficult to recall that two of the three best teams in England were contesting a 'Super Sunday'. Manchester City hardly flowed, though the selection of Gareth Barry and James Milner prefaced a performance of hard work rather than flowing creation. The first half saw City have the better attempts on goal, when both David Silva and Sergio Aguero headed straight at Cech and Zabaleta forced a save, but Chelsea perhaps shaded the second period, though just one shot on target was a poor return from a team of previous entertainers.
"They are not my supporters but I can understand it is not easy for a new manager," sympathised Roberto Mancini with his pariah of an opposite number. "I think he is a good manager who has won trophies but it is a difficult quest here."
"Sacked in the morning," sang a less empathetic band of City fans, joining in the mockery before regaling their own man. The Italian waved his thanks. A manager who has presided over a second consecutive Champions League disaster is still popular and employed.
It wouldn't happen at Chelsea, though Mancini's future is hardly cast-iron either. Only in the petrodollar echelon of modern football can the champions of both England and Europe find their managers under such pressure so short a time after the greatest successes of the clubs' modern times.
As an inevitable goalless conclusion became fact at the final whistle, the booing was strangely absent. Perhaps the worst is already over for Benitez. Mancini was able to offer him a workable solution to staving off his problems with owner and supporter.
"Win, win, win, win, win every game, said the Italian. "It's not a secret, it's true," agreed the Spaniard. Even then, it might not be enough.