Rafa Benitez came in for plenty of criticism, which has always bubbled underneath the surface since his appointment but do the club’s fans need to rally around the team more than ever now, rather than continuing to focus their ire on the man in charge?
It’s always unstable territory whenever one fan tells another fan who to support their team, especially when they don’t even support the same side. Nevertheless, many neutral observers have been shocked by the treatment that Benitez has had to endure on the sidelines since taking over the reins from Roberto Di Matteo and steadying the ship. Has it all gone too far?
It appears that Chelsea fans at the moment can be broken down into roughly three groups, for now large section of supporters ever thinks as one mind; you have those who are unhappy at the appointment but are willing to keep quiet and support the side, those that have taken the hiring of Benitez as a personal affront and have a deep dislike for the man and aren’t shy about showing their feeling with the quite ridiculous cheer for Di Matteo every match drawing comparisons with the one that Aston Villa do for Stiliyan Petrov who has leukaemia and finally the third group that are using this latest decision to invoke their outrage at the club’s hierarchy, with the Spanish coach merely the symbol of their protests. All in all then, it’s not a very happy club at the moment and the atmosphere has bordered on the poisonous at times.
To be honest with you, when cretins such as Trizia Fiorellino are trotted out for their opinions on Benitez they let their personal feelings get in the way of discussing purely footballing matters and they lack any sort of substance when speaking on behalf of wide sections of support, cringing at her utter lack of rational thought. For those Chelsea fans that dislike Benitez because of the intense rivalry with Liverpool in the past, that’s somewhat understandable, especially as he said some less than complimentary things about some flags once upon a time. The protest which featured plenty of A4-sized banners was dripping rich with irony.
If it is purely a personal issue that certain sections of the club’s support have with the manager, then that’s entirely up to them – Liverpool fans never took to Roy Hodgson, Aston Villa fans certainly didn’t to Alex McLeish and Bolton fans openly hated Gary Megson – sometimes clubs and managers don’t fit and to be fair, the appointment itself looked an odd one, not only because the bridge in terms of style between Benitez and future target Pep Guardiola is hard to see, but the logic in replacing a club legend with someone that managed a rival club for a number of years is skewed at best. This is where those aiming their anger at the likes of Abramovich and his lackeys certainly have a valid argument, tired of their club being made to look a laughing stock to a global audience.
But I digress; it’s when this critique manifests itself in some sort of contrived stab at Benitez’s footballing credentials that Chelsea fans lose me. He is a superb manager and under the circumstances there was very little else available. He has made the club competitive again, started to get something approaching decent and consistent form out of Fernando Torres and helped to plug up a porous defence.
After securing three successive top flight away wins, the first time the club have done so since 2009, against tricky opposition such as Everton, Norwich and Sunderland, not to mention four league wins in a row and 28 goals in their last eight games, there was talk of fans slowly warming to Benitez and rumours that he may be asked to stay on permanently.
Of course, this is utter folly, for Benitez will never be popular enough for fans to ever ‘warm’ to him and the best he can hope for is widespread indifference, but it’s just a lot easier to boo someone after a defeat than say an 8-0 home victory. These are the very worst type of fans, the sort that only rear their ugly heads when things are going wrong. The sort that offer only criticism but no solutions other pie in the sky ‘we should sign Falcao’ suggestions. These are modern football fans; reactionary, knee-jerk and cynical
Timing is everything and there are plenty that have been consistent with their opinion no matter what results have been like, the sort that have watched the club for years and have paid thousands of pounds to do so and they are entitled to have their say; personally, I’ve never really seen the point of booing as it looks a childish measure to resort to and I’d much rather have my say with my feet and wallet than with my voice, but horses for course and all that.
It was surprising that Benitez chose to rest all three of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Ramires for the game against relegation strugglers QPR and the side certainly missed their fluency and movement both on and off the ball. However, they still managed 26 shots on goal, with only two hitting the target; this was not a failure of system or management, but of personnel. Far too often are we quick to slam the man in charge rather than the clearly under-performing players. A front four of Torres, Marin, Oscar and Moses should have been enough to have seen off the Hoops’, that it wasn’t is the fault of the players above all else and it led to an embarrassing and scarcely believable defeat.
There is a danger that with the club now 14 points adrift of league leaders Manchester United and seven points behind reigning champions City that Benitez’s remaining time in charge will be like that of a lame duck manager. Before the season started, we were told that this was a campaign of transition, in terms of style, system and personnel and that a top three finish, restoring the club’s top four place was a priority, but the fine early form distorted expectations and raised them to a degree that this squad simply isn’t capable of keeping up with on a consistent enough basis. This is club that finished sixth in the league last year lest we forget and restoring them to the status of title challengers is no quick fix.
Chelsea will finish in the top four this season, of that I am very confident and Benitez will likely move on with his name firmly back in the shop window at club’s all around Europe, which at the end of the day was what this was all about for him. If the side can maintain their dominance in the FA Cup this year and do well in the Europa League, there could still be a silverware-tinged lining to yet another dramatic season for the fans at Stamford Bridge.
All is not lost is the message and setbacks like the QPR and Corinthians’ defeats merely expose the task ahead for whoever takes over the club in the summer; this is a squad with quality but lacking depth and while the naysayers will always lie in wait, perhaps grudging acceptance of the context of the situation is what’s needed most at the moment.