It has been a rather peculiar year at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea started the season as Champions of Europe following their memorable Champions League final victory against Bayern Munich, yet by November, things had already turned sour in West London. Roman Abramovich claimed the Premier League’s first managerial casualty of the season, by wielding the axe over club legend Roberto Di Matteo, replacing him with one of the Blues’ faithful most detested icons -Rafa Benitez.
From the offset, the protests were rife. The mood on matchdays at Stamford Bridge was intense and negative, the media circus surrounding the club continued to spiral out of control, and much was made about the title ‘interim’.
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Yet, fast forward to the end of the season, with Benitez’ interim tenure reaching its expiration, and most Chelsea fans will tell you that it’s been an acceptable season. Without a consistent first team striker, finishing third in the Premier League is no easy feat, and similarly, on the continent, claiming the Europa League title has allowed Blues supporters to continue their chant of ‘Champions of Europe, we know what we are’, for at least another season.
The history books will look upon Benitez’ Chelsea career in a more balanced light than the often negative media attention the Spaniard received whilst actually in charge at Stamford Bridge. But considering how overall, it has been a good year for the Blues, with another piece of silverware to add to the trophy cabinet, are Chelsea overall a better club following their former manager’s tenure? A few years down the line, they could have even more than a second tier continental trophy to thank him for.
To once again take you back to November, the month of Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking, it is worth remembering that it was rather brave on Rafa Benitez’ part to take the vacancy in the first place. Not only due to the fact that he was well aware of the bad blood between himself and the Stamford Bridge faithful from his days at Liverpool, with both clubs forging a bitter rivalry from their European escapades, but the Chelsea job had long been a poisoned chalice, ever since Andre Villas-Boas’ tenure was cut short to a matter of months by Roman Abramovich.
Di Matteo had made the best out of a bad situation, finally seeming to get a grip on the club’s growing problem with ‘player power’ – the idea that Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard had been calling the shots behind the scenes for quite some time, and that all three were not too fond of AVB – but his dismissal, just months after lifting the most coveted prise in club football, signified to the rest of the world that the notion of job security, either based on past successes or reputation, was non-existent whilst under Roman Abramovich’s employment.
The Russian billionaire’s trigger happy manner turned away Europe’s elite collection of head coaches, with Pep Guardiola openly announcing his disinterest in the vacancy, and others deciding it was far too early in the season to begin jumping ship. It signified that the Chelsea role had become an undesirable challenge due to the many problems at the club, from top to bottom, and therefore the Blues would have to make do with a manager whose stock wasn’t currently so high.
Somewhere in the depths of the UAE, the call was made to Benitez. Whilst you can point out that the Spaniard undertook the job for the sake of his career more than anything else, having not worked in management for nearly two years and his reputation damaged from a rather woeful spell at Inter Milan, it does not change the fact that the incoming Napoli manager took up a role that overall had nothing going for it; the Blues were already adrift from the title race domestically, virtually eliminated from the Champions League, possessed a squad that was seemingly at odds with itself and were owned by an oligarch who appeared to almost enjoy the experience of harshly doing away with his managers at will.
It’s in sharp contrast to the present day, where Chelsea’s health and stability has managed to attract Jose Mourinho back to his former club. Of course, there are other factors involved such as his adoration of the Premier League and the overall disappointment of his tenure at Real Madrid, but had the West Londoners conducted the whole season in the dramatic and chaotic manner in which it started with, taking its toll on league position in the process, the Special One would not be so interested in a glorious return to Stamford Bridge, especially without the assurance of Champions League football.
So how has Rafa Benitez made the Chelsea job a far more attractive prospect? One of his biggest feats has surely been his management of the squad. Although the jury is still out on his bizarre choice of substitutions – frequently relying upon Yossi Benayoun as some sort of supersub – there’s no doubt that he’s improved the manner in which the Blues play their football. Under AVB and Roberto Di Matteo, the style of play never found its cosmic balance; the Blues could attack but not defend, whilst the roster was undergoing a transition between the mechanical, robustly physical players from the Mourinho era and the new breed of technically-based footballers brought in over the last few years.
Benitez’ approach was immediately centred around the club’s future – Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard, also known as the three amigos – yet the Spanish coach also managed to find room for Frank Lampard, who has undergone one of his best seasons to date in a Chelsea jersey, striking the balance between new and old and Stamford Bridge. But the allowance of the three to naturally progress together as a unit could not have been undertaken during a normal campaign; with the pressure and attention focused solely on Benitez, in addition to the fact that his ‘interim’ title had labelled the season as one of stabilisation and growth rather than success, the attacking trio were given room to breathe and make mistakes. Similarly, he should be praised for discovering David Luiz’ optimum position on the pitch, and getting at least a decent season out of Fernando Torres.
Off the pitch, Benitez has also had a positive effect, but in a rather inadvertent manner. He soon became a scapegoat for everything Chelsea fans had grown to detest about their club since their rise to ascendancy; the constant flurry of managers providing a lack of consistency, the use of money as a short cut to success, and most importantly, the complete disregard of the fan’s wishes from the boardroom.
They shouted, booed and hissed at the Spaniard, they sung the name of Roberto Di Matteo and some even brought home-made posters and banners to protest his appointment and overall offend him. Whether the level of abuse was warranted or not, as it encompassed a number of issues at the club that existed long before Benitez’s employment, and was tied into continual frustrations over Fernando Torres, it at least appears to have got the angst out of the Chelsea supporters’ system.
It is another testament to Bentiez’ bravery that it was he who eventually called for the armistice with the fans, despite lacking any support from either Roman Abramovich or the players at Stamford Bridge, both of whom tended to distance themselves in the media from their manager. Either by accident or design, his now famous rant in February, criticising the board and the fans, and the eternal use of the word ‘interim’, appeared to strike a chord with the Chelsea faithful, whose excessive protests were beginning to have an adverse effect upon results. Whether or not opinions of the fans have changed regarding Benitez, the former Liverpool boss should be praised for rescuing the club’s season, whilst it was balancing delicately on the cliff-edge of despair.
You can call Rafa Benitez many things; a careerist, an opportunist, a mediocre manager, an obnoxious man, a figure of hate, a fool for taking a job at a club who despised him, but there is no doubt Chelsea are in a far better position than they were in seven months ago, or for that matter, last summer.
He’s administered the transition between the new way and the old approach whilst Villas-Boas and Di Matteo failed to do so, he’s claimed a continental trophy that the Blues have never won before, he assured Champions League qualification amid a season where the fans, the board, the players and the media often operated against him and he’s taken the flack for a number of issues at the club that have relatively little to actually do with him.
Most importantly however, he’s made the Chelsea post a desirable prospect once again. Blues fans will uphold that a reunion with Mourinho was inevitable, part of the club’s and the manager’s destiny, yet there is no way a manager of the Portuguese’s class, quality and experience would have taken the job at Stamford Bridge had Benitez not lifted them out of the mess they spent much of the season dwelling in, especially with Manchester City and Manchester United both having managerial vacancies of their own.
The Special One will return to West London, and once again revel in the glory, but Blues fans should remember that the path was paved for him by The Interim One, who has now put the foundations in place for Mourinho to undertake a second successful spell at the club.