There have been few ‘marriages’ in the EPL more absurd than the disastrous union between Rafa Benitez and Chelsea. In recent EPL history I can only point to the staggeringly inept – but thankfully short-lived – reigns of Alex McLeish at Aston Villa (parachuted into Villa Park from bitter local rivals Birmingham City having just relegated the Blues), the inexplicable promotion of assistant coach Terry Connor following the departure of Mick McCarthy at Wolves (a shrewd move that saw Connor – hindered by the minor snag that he had never previously managed anyone anywhere – win not a single one of his thirteen matches at the helm as Wolves crashed through the EPL trapdoor; a slide that shows no sign of slowing down) and Steve Kean’s hapless tenure in skilfully relegating Blackburn Rovers.
You may wonder why this piece is written in the past tense, but with the British media’s blanket coverage of Rafa’s timely rant against Chelsea, the squad, their fans and, in a move that draws worthy comparison to assembling your own guillotine and proceeding to willingly lay beneath the shimmering blade, direct criticism of Roman Abramovich himself, Rafa’s interim period at Stamford Bridge has suddenly become even more temporary.
Rafa was on a hiding to nothing on his arrival at Stamford Bridge. Despised by the fans because of his Liverpool connections, hated because of his battles with the cerebral Jose Mourinho – particularly in the European Champions League during his time at Anfield – and facing the impossible task of following in the footsteps of the ever-popular Roberto di Matteo. Whatever your opinion of RDM – and I personally believe him to be an extremely limited coach – the dramatic chain of events towards the end of last season allow him to be somehow credited as a European Champions League Winner! Okay, Chelsea’s unlikely triumph was more due to a seismic shift in attitude and application within the core of the team, namely John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba – having emerged from their petulant sulks under Andre Villas Boas – than RDM’s tactical acumen, but nonetheless he had snatched Roman Abramovich’s Holy Grail from the clutches of FC Bayern! The fact – as Rafa is so keen to highlight – that Chelsea also finished a distant 6th in the EPL was merely glossed over by their European victory – 6th in the EPL was entirely AVB’s fault whilst scratching their way to Munich was entirely RDM’s impact in the eyes of the Chelsea faithful.
Rather than bask in the glory of the Champions League triumph Abramovich chose to broadcast his complete and total lack of faith in RDM by indiscreetly spending the entire summer flirting outrageously with outgoing Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, only to be predictably snubbed by a man who prioritises stability and steady development over the trigger-happy hire ‘em, fire ‘em style at the Bridge. It was with a heavy heart, crushed by Guardiola’s deafening rejection ringing in his ears like church bells, that Abramovich dejectedly appointed RDM as his permanent manager. RDM was patently not wanted by Abramovich! Although all football coaches are technically appointed on an interim basis, RDM’s time was numbered before the ink had even begun to dry on his contract.
A humiliating 4-1 hammering by Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup coupled with the embarrassment of setting a new record for ineptitude in their European Champions League defence – becoming the first holders to exit at the group stage – and their EPL challenge extinguished before it had even ignited saw RDM’s managerial limitations brutally exposed despite huge squad investment in the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar. But few would’ve predicted the identity of Abramovich’s knight in shining armour to be Rafa Benitez!
Rafa had found himself out of management since breaking-up and demoralising Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter side during his ill-fated six-month spell at the San Siro back in 2010. His appointment at Stamford Bridge smacked of desperation, but on both sides of the table! Rafa desperately needed a window of exposure to showcase his skills after 2yrs on the sidelines whilst Abramovich had realised that no credible coach would dare risk his reputation as the ringmaster of the Stamford Bridge circus. A marriage made of convenience and mutual dependence!
The fans were immediately offside with the former Liverpool boss’ arrival in west-London; that they were ‘underwhelmed’ by his appointment would be stating it kindly. ‘Rafa Out’ banners greeted his debut appearance at the Bridge while the 16th minute (RDM’s shirt number during his playing career at Chelsea) triggered – and continues to inspire – a rousing rendition of the RDM songbook from the Chelsea choir! Rafa chose to bury his head in the sand; if he started winning matches then the crowd would support him and get behind the team. But that never happened, either his winning a succession of matches or the fans diluting their loathing of his presence. Everything was wrong with this curious arrangement. The signings of Oscar and Hazard to complement the established Juan Mata and the veteran Frank Lampard in the hope of reinvigorating the increasingly lost Fernando Torres had the fans licking their lips in anticipation of free-flowing attacking flair, oozing style and panache. The weak RDM had attempted to appease their demands by naively deploying all his attacking options at the same time, thus leaving his defence woefully exposed in a hideously unbalanced tactical formation. A 3-2 defeat to Man City in the Community Shield hinted at the season ahead, results including a 4-2 victory at Spurs, 4-2 against Reading, 2-2 against Juventus and successive high-scoring contests against Man Utd – a 3-2 defeat and 5-4 League Cup victory – demonstrating that, if nothing else, the Chelsea fans were being treated to open and exciting games. The dour, defence-orientated default mantra of Rafa was never ever going to provide an appeasing alternative.
But has Rafa helped himself? He has reopened the debate over his ‘interim’ job title, suggesting that it has undermined his authority within a notoriously ill-disciplined club. Perhaps he has a point? But equally that situation was made very clear to him on his acceptance of the substantial salary that accompanied the job offer. And he can hardly focus too heavily on the uncertainty surrounding the ‘interim’ title while at the same time openly touting himself as a potential successor to Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid?! He has directly criticised the fans for their lack of support; pointing out their continued vocal tributes to RDM are negatively-affecting the team. It is perhaps unusual for a club’s support to be so vocal of a past manager without inputting a similar enthusiasm towards their current manager – Roy Hodgson had to tolerate chants in support of Kenny Dalglish (who was to become his successor) during his short reign at Anfield – but RDM did secure both the European Champions League and the FA Cup under his watch! His time at Stamford Bridge cannot simply be ignored because the current incumbent is feeling a little insecure?!
So what next for the soon-to-be-divorced couple? Benitez would’ve hoped to re-establish himself as a credible name at the forefront of European club management during his time at Chelsea. Perhaps he even deluded himself enough to think he would actually be awarded a contract extension despite the hideousness of the situation? But he finds himself lying 4th in the EPL – albeit an improvement on last years 6th – with the EPL title long-gone over the horizon and facing a difficult battle with Spurs, Arsenal and Everton to secure Champions League qualification for next season. His tactical approach seems dated, inflexible, lacking cohesion and understanding from his players and reminiscent of the dark days towards the end of his time at Liverpool. It must be seriously doubtful that he has done enough to elevate his name into the minds of top European clubs come the summer merry-go-round.
And for Abramovich and Chelsea, having alienated just about every possible managerial target in Europe? The question has to be asked that, barring the huge pay cheque that accompanies the Chelsea hot-seat, who the hell would commit career suicide by attempting to appease the many demands at Stamford Bridge?!? Guardiola has already chosen FC Bayern, there is no way Jurgen Klopp would leave the vibrant Borussia Dortmund for Chelsea while other candidates would have to think hard before signing up to the football equivalent of Mission Impossible. Maybe a return for Jose Mourinho, himself certain to depart the Bernabeu in the summer? Mourinho’s mercenary attitude and dictatorial approach proved a huge success during his first spell at the Bridge, but Abramovich grew increasingly tired of the Portuguese’s power-trips, ultimatums and hostility towards the media. Would either man concede enough ground to reunite the most successful partnership in Chelsea’s history? It is unlikely….especially with the mega-bucks of Man City and PSG to potentially tempt Mourinho’s eye. But, if not Mourinho, where does Abramovich turn next?