Rafa Benitez is walking the highway to hell as manager of Chelsea; he knows it, the players know it and all of us can see it as plain as day. But Benitez is far too proud a manager to admit defeat.
Roman Abramovich is getting a shot in the leg for parting company with Roberto Di Matteo, when anyone with clear vision could see there was nothing wrong with the Italian or his reign as manager. So he went through a bit of a blip, that’s normal in the game. And if Abramovich wants to conquer the most competitive league in the world and the European game, he has to face up to reality.
But none of that is Benitez’s problem. He’s declined good jobs in the recent past for a top job in Europe, and that alone should be enough of a compliment to Chelsea. Was it that he managed Liverpool at one time, or was it that he made a throwaway comment about flags? So what, it’s football and comments like that from rival managers is expected in the game. Mentioning flags is hardly damaging to a club; walking into a room and firing whoever is unfortunate enough to be there is.
It’s a fire fight from Benitez’s point of view. He’s not really fighting for his reputation, because, like Tim Robbins, he’ll emerge from all this cleaner than when he went in. But he’s a professional and he’s having to deal with the workings of an owner who is most unprofessional.
Chelsea fans can say what they like about him, but why should his name continue to be dragged through the mud just because he’s perceived to be failing at a club and with a squad that isn’t his? We all know he’s out the door by the end of the season at the latest, but this is still a manager who played an incredible role in what English football holds dearest over the past decade.
How much pride is there that an English club triumphed in the granddaddy of them all in Istanbul in 2005? What about that Liverpool side that went to Old Trafford and dismantled Manchester United? How many times have we seen teams do that? Ironically, there was Chelsea before that and Manchester City following, but it was significant. Benitez brought Fernando Torres to England and remains the only manager to get the best out of him, as if that should be under his signature on his Christmas cards.
Fans don’t like him, fine, but he’s a far better football manager than he’s often given credit for. Benitez has as good a CV as any arriving manager at Stamford Bridge since Roman Abramovich took over. He has a Champions League medal, league titles, domestic cups, and remains highly thought of in Spain. When it all goes south for him at Chelsea at some stage during the next few months, he will be right there on the small shortlist of managers to take over from Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid.
So if he’s underperforming at Chelsea, doesn’t the blame lie with the owner? Benitez thinks of himself as the manager of the club, but everyone else remains firm that he’s the interim boss. How does that look in the eyes of the players? They’re hardly going to pay much attention to a man they know won’t be around for much longer, but that also makes up a totally different argument.
Benitez is in an unfortunate position, however he’ll be fine for a good job elsewhere. But this mess should never have descended this far. Carlo Ancelotti had the players on-side, had a winning track record and should never have been sacked. It starts at the top, and Benitez is receiving too much bad press for the actions of someone else.