As Rafael Benitez left the tunnel and arrived pitch-side for his first match as interim manager of Chelsea, he discovered something very quickly: fans shouting loudly from the terraces weren’t screaming "Boo-nitez."
If the former Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan boss hadn’t already realized the adversity he would come up against as the new gaffer at Stamford Bridge, then the home fans slapped him across the face with it Sunday before his debut match against Manchester City. The reception given to Benitez by the Chelsea faithful more befitted a convicted criminal than the man who once guided a fierce rival.
In taking the job last week, Benitez surely understood the task at hand in getting this expensive, but underperforming London side back to playing the dazzling football they were at the start of the season. What he might not have known, but which came abundantly clear on Sunday, was that the PR campaign to win over his club’s fans just might be more difficult than anything on the pitch.
When Roberto Di Matteo was sacked midweek by Roman Abramovich following a comprehensive 3-0 loss away to Juventus in a crucial Champions League match, a majority of Chelsea fans weren’t so much surprised as they were disappointed.
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Only six months ago, Di Matteo, who had taken over as manager for the fired Andre Villas-Boas, led the Blues to their first ever Champions League title and, for that, would forever feel the gratitude of Chelsea supporters. With that triumph fresh in their minds, most supporters felt that more time should have been given to the Italian to right the ship. After all, the club hasn’t been knocked out of the Champions League yet with one match remaining in the group stage and, at the time, sat only four points adrift of City at the Premier League summit. Work would obviously need to be done, but Di Matteo remained the man for the job in the minds of most.
But when word came that the manager who always cut a calm and collected figure at the touchline had been let go, there was no real shock, and only sadness from the Chelsea supporters.
Really, how could they be surprised? Since Abramovich took over the team in 2003, eight men have managed the team. Now eight men, who each coached an average of 64 matches under Abramovich, had been fired. Di Matteo lasted 42 games.
Despite Abramovich’s itchy trigger finger for dismissing managers, the Muscovite magnate has delivered a staggering 12 titles in his eight years as owner. Chelsea supporters might not be in love with Abramovich’s dealings with his managers, but it’s difficult to doubt his commitment to the club in terms of his vast spending, and it’s impossible to argue with his track record of trophy-collecting. The Chelsea job might be a tenuous one, but it’s one that still comes with prestige.
The sadness surrounding Di Matteo quickly turned to anger from supporters, though, with the appointment of Benitez.
Few Chelsea fans forgot Benitez’s pronouncement from five seasons ago when the Spaniard was still in charge of Liverpool.
"Chelsea is a big club with fantastic players, every manager wants to coach such a big team," Benitez said back in 2007. "But I would never take that job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool, no matter what. For me there is only club in England, and that’s Liverpool."
The reception received by the 2005 Champions League-winning manager dictated that it will be more than an uphill battle for him to earn the Chelsea supporters’ respect. In fact, scaling Kilimanjaro might be an easy climb. That being said, Benitez vows to gain Blues’ fans admiration.
“How will I do it? By working hard, doing my best and winning games,” Benitez told the BBC. “If we start winning games they will come on board and they will see that I will try to do my best for them. I have confidence we will win games and some of the fans will realize (booing) is not the way to support your team."
No such victory came to Chelsea on Sunday. Benitez sorely would have loved to make a big splash against the defending champions, but were second best against Manchester City in a 0-0 draw.
It’s not to say that Chelsea played particularly poorly (and City did not exactly dominate), but where the Blues failed was that they’ve continued to underperform offensively.
To nobody’s surprise the chief culprit surrounding this prolonged attacking anemia is the man on this Chelsea squad who knows Benitez best: the misfiring Fernando Torres.
Upon his arrival in England, the mercurial Spaniard thrived under Benitez at Anfield and emerged as one of, if not the, preeminent strikers in the Premier League. Torres’s unhappiness at Liverpool grew palpable by the time he became a 50 million pound transfer capture at Stamford Bridge two years ago.
Since then, Torres has done nothing to justify such a price tag. While last season you could make the argument that the World Cup and Euro winner ran well off the ball and simply was snake-bitten, the same can’t be said this term. As of now, Torres’s year will be best remembered for getting sent off for diving in a loss against Manchester United last month.
While Torres currently holds the mantle of joint top scorer for Chelsea this season with four goals (tied with Juan Mata), unrest among supporters has risen to its highest level yet among supporters.
The Spaniard, relegated to the substitutes’ bench in Turin last week, did little in his 20 minutes of play to warrant a start on Sunday, but there he was starting against City.
What Benitez got out of his (new) old striker was more of the same of what Chelsea fans have come to expect out of him this year – mostly invisible, mostly indifferent and no physical match for the City centre backs, Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic.
When Torres was provided a moment to shine just past the hour mark, his shot let him down. Latching onto one of the many long balls sent his way, the Spaniard drove over the bar on what was otherwise a quiet day at the office.
Though Torres wasn’t the only Blues player to misfire, it will be the former Atletico Madrid man’s form who will most greatly shape Benitez’s tenure.
Benitez already suggested that Torres’s teammates need to provide better service to him, but perhaps Benitez doesn’t realize that this Chelsea club isn’t made up like his former Liverpool side. There is no midfield general like Xabi Alonso or Steven Gerrard among these ranks to provide service. Instead, a more fluid and self-contained unit led by Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard runs the middle of the park for Chelsea.
Right now, the contrast between Torres and that triad on paper is playing out on the pitch before Benitez’s eyes and he mustn’t make any mistake about it – the reason for the incongruence weighs on Torres’s shoulders and not his midfield. How Benitez will sort this out remains to be seen.
With the transfer window almost upon us, it is still unknown how active Chelsea will be in it and, if they are, who will be calling the shots – Benitez, the interim manager, or Abramovich.
Before that even becomes an issue, though, much needs to be sorted out by Benitez internally. Abramovich thinks he is the man to do this. Chelsea supporters clearly do not. In the upcoming weeks and months, we will discover who is correct.
As for Benitez himself, one can only hope he knows what he’s gotten himself into before he’s the next to drink from Chelsea’s poison chalice.