Christmas may already be done and dusted for another year but there is still a ‘Scrooge’ mentality at the core of many Chelsea supporters, who refuse to accept their new manager, despite the growing number of nodding heads around them.
Two mundane stalemates and a defeat to London rivals West Ham initiated an uninspiring start to life in the temporary hot seat. The unrelenting chorus of boos rained down on Rafael Benitez, pausing only briefly to praise the efforts of outgoing hero Roberto Di Matteo.
However, the refined Spaniard remained resilient and began orchestrating a remarkable turnaround that has seen the Blues win their last four Premier League games. Benitez marked their disappointing-yet-unavoidable Champions League exit with a 6-1 demolition of Danish champions FC Nordsjaelland and swiftly followed their Club World Cup woe with an equally impressive 5-1 thrashing of Leeds United in the Capital One Cup Quarter-Final.
If the club pick up a highly anticipated three points against relegation-threatened QPR, they will leap frog Tottenham into third place, just four points behind reigning champions Manchester City with a game in hand. Against all the odds, Benitez is succeeding in piecing back together his reputation along with a dressing room that has at times, appeared painfully divided.
Here are five reasons why:
The removal of the shackles from around David Luiz
I love David Luiz. Any player that marries raw talent with erratic decision-making will always prove a fine source of entertainment. I stand by my initial assessment that hailed him as a dangerous entity at both ends of the pitch. He is a clinical finisher that also has a habit of gleefully abandoning his primary defensive duties.
The decision to move the mop-haired marauder into midfield has been labelled as inspired and yet for many, it resembles an inevitable transition that has taken far too long to implement. The Portuguese international is incredibly comfortable on the ball and can act as a lynchpin that can hold the team together when the vast array of attacking talent bombs forward.
With the injection of discipline, a dash of maturity and a pinch of restraint, Luiz could be one of the best deep-lying playmakers in the Premier League.
The regeneration of Fernando Torres
Declarations that ‘Fernando Torres is back’ are somewhat premature; he is merely playing better than ever before in a Chelsea shirt. The Spaniard has scored seven goals since being reunited with Benitez, but it’s the return of his eagerness and enthusiasm that will have also appeased the Chelsea faithful.
Perhaps he is desperate to impress his old mentor or maybe he has been tainted by the fact the national team have abandoned the concept of a traditional striker. Regardless, Torres actually resembles a centre-forward these days rather than a lonely blond child orbiting the penalty area without a sense of purpose or direction.
The 28-year-old may have suffered a similar demise to that of Rio Ferdinand in the pace department, but his clinical nature in front of goal remains tucked away in his locker. His expertly taken opener against Sunderland showcased a newfound desire to make surging runs into the box and the confidence of his team-mates to trust him with the ball.
The effective rotation policy
Once upon a time, a rotation policy was an utterly laughable concept in football management. It earned former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri the nickname ‘Tinkerman’, in what was a charming yet ultimately damaging assessment of his time at the club.
However, the cries of ‘you should never change a winning team’ are fading fast, with more and more people recognising the detrimental effects of the intensified format of the Premier League. While Di Matteo put his faith in a familiar starting line-up, Benitez has allowed the fringe members of the squad to play an important role.
The performances of Oscar have been admirable, but at such a tender age it is unfair to ask him to cope with the physical demands of English football on a weekly basis. Enter Victor Moses, whose quick feet and direct style of movement has added a new, exciting dimension to an already formidable attack.
Fellow new arrivals Marko Marin and Cesar Azpilicueta are also being gradually integrated into the side, which has helped support the imperious Juan Mata and Eden Hazard while allowing Branislav Ivanovic to return to his favoured central role in defence.
The ‘hogging’ of the media spotlight
One of Jose Mourinho’s greatest assets is his ability to lure the intense media spotlight away from his players. Rafael Benitez may be a far cry from the ‘Special One’ in terms of popularity but he too has bore the brunt of recent publicity, enabling his team – as clichéd as it sounds – to concentrate on their football.
There will always be a tabloid circus dancing around a club like Chelsea, simply as a result of harbouring an unconventional and ruthless chairman. However, Benitez has managed to subdue such exposure with his refusal or rather inability to talk about potential transfer targets or impending contract negotiations.
The Spaniard hasn’t attempted to sugar coat his situation, ignoring speculation about his interim status and instead choosing to focus solely on the next fixture in Chelsea’s busy schedule. This will prove crucial, especially under the leadership of a man like Roman Abramovich, where his next game could easily be his last.
The quest for ‘balance’ in a team of talented individuals
The recent eight-goal annihilation of Aston Villa formed two conclusions; one – Paul Lambert is in serious trouble and two – Chelsea can still be ruthless under a ‘defensive-minded’ coach.
The portrayal of Rafael Benitez as a negative manager is incredibly harsh, especially when he strives to create a side that is as competent going forward as it is without the ball. Again, dare I say this is another trait he shares with Mourinho.
Pushing Luiz into midfield has created stability in Mikel’s absence and calling upon Moses has fashioned a sense of width into a naturally narrow formation. The archaic Brazilian mantra of ‘we’ll score more than you’ simply won’t cut it in the Premier League, although you wouldn’t know it looking at Manchester United.
In spite of his heroics at the Bridge, there is an underlying sense that supporters will quickly turn on Benitez when the club’s fine form comes to an end. With Abramovich still persistently courting Pep Guardiola, this is the job interview from hell, without the actual prospect of employment six-months down the line.
There is no denying Guardiola’s wonderful achievement at Barcelona, but he is no guarantee for success in English football, especially in the short-term. The cost of installing Guardiola as manager along with all his commendable philosophies could prove a gamble that even a Russian billionaire can’t afford. It seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that Bentitez is the best candidate to serve up success in West London for years to come.