As Chelsea departed on their maiden voyage in search of glory at the Club World Cup, they were bereft of the rousing send-off they arguably deserved. Supporters, pundits and journalists were eager to lament the mid-season tournament and verbally castrate its importance.
Perhaps they feared it would further derail a whimpering title charge or were still angry that Roberto Di Matteo wouldn’t be around to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Regardless, the competition will be treated with the upmost respect by interim-manager Rafael Benitez and may even prove a blessing in disguise.
“You can never, ever, say challenging for a trophy comes at a bad time. It’s silverware and a cup we want to win.” (Guardian)
Stern words by the Spaniard, but he knows full well that the quickest and most effective way to appease supporters will be to bolster the trophy cabinet.
The growing consensus that the club’s time in Japan will hamper their domestic aspirations appears to be somewhat unfounded. Of course, the league will continue as normal in their absence but Manchester United proved in 2008 that it could be the perfect catalyst.
Four years ago the Red Devils arrived in Japan off the back of an uninspiring goalless draw at White Hart Lane. After cruising past Gamba Osaka in the semi-final, Ferguson and co found the finale anything but a formality, squeezing past LDU de Quito thanks to late Wayne Rooney strike.
However, upon returning to England the team oozed an unrivalled mental strength and went on an 11-game unbeaten run in which they never conceded a goal. Their inspired form was only brought to an end in mid-March when rather aptly, Rafael Benitez and Fernando Torres ran riot at Old Trafford in a 4-1 demolition. The competition therefore only served to make the club stronger and bring the players closer together as a unit.
Benitez will be hoping for a similar reaction from his new collection of talented players, especially considering their unsavoury reputation for training ground bust-ups and heated dressing room disputes. The news that Ashley Cole was forced to be a waiter for the evening after a dismal performance in a team bonding bowling trip, not only provides us with a cheap laugh but also highlights how eager Benitez is to shed the unrelenting pressure of professional football.
The stubborn selection of supporters still refusing to acknowledge Benitez will perhaps change their tune if they see their players responding well to the new management. The festive schedule is a notoriously difficult period in English football and will surely shape any potential success the club are going to have this season. Therefore it is essential that all aspects of the club are pulling the same direction.
I am sure there were moments during his inauguration at Stamford Bridge when Benitez wished he were on the other side of the world. He will have been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to escape the recurring hostile atmosphere and surely any fans that decide to travel with the team, will cheer their beloved club no matter what. I mean, who in their right mind would travel 6,000 miles just for a spot of booing?
Benitez will relish the prospect of training in a new environment, as he continues to stamp his own brand of tactical charm on the squad. The unusual surroundings will help instigate a transitional phase that will feel like a new beginning for all concerned. Their short stint in Asia will also bestow the club with the chance to flex their marketing muscle, in a region notoriously dominated by English clubs that play in red.
The whirlwind of fixtures that engulfed the 52-year-old’s arrival at Chelsea would have felt alien to a manger whose cheeks have not touched a managerial hot seat in nearly two years. This brief ‘rest’ period will allow him to further assess his squad and even experiment with untested tactics, just as he did by playing David Luiz in midfield during today’s 3-1 victory over Monterrey.
Although Benitez will undoubtedly be enjoying his time in Japan, he has fair reason to look unfavourably upon the competition. His heroic Liverpool side lost in the final to Sao Paulo in 2005 and despite cruising to success in 2010 with Inter Milan, he left the club just five days later. And that can’t happen again, can it?