On 21st November 2012, Roman Abramovich made the hugely unpopular decision to appoint Rafael Benitez on an interim basis to replace the outgoing Roberto Di Matteo in the Chelsea hotseat. Due to Benitez’s previous association with ex-rivals Liverpool and comments he made about the club during his Anfield tenure, reaction from the Stamford Bridge faithful was somewhat fierce and a wave of hostility followed. The terraces voiced their public disapproval of the Spaniard in his first couple of months in charge through unfurling banners and regular chanting for his exit during both home and away games, which led many to believe his appointment had created a negative atmosphere in the dressing room and lack of respect from the playing staff.
However, fast forward to the start of May and the impossible has happened. Rafael Benitez has been named Premier League’s manager of the month for April, at a crucial stage of an arduous and gruelling footballing calendar. But while this news could not have been envisaged by many just a few months ago, it has come as no surprise to myself. Just look at the stats. Benitez has collected 10 Premiership points from a possible 12 for Chelsea in the past month whilst a slender 3-2 defeat to Rubin Kazan (which Chelsea secured a 5-4 aggregate victory) was his only blemish in Europe, conjuring up a further two wins. Benitez has now been in charge of 42 games, the same number as Di Matteo before his axe, and the stats are very similar. Whilst Di Matteo leads the way marginally (Di Matteo: 24 wins, 9 losses, 9 draws- 57% win ratio), Benitez has every right to feel harshly treated in terms of stats (Benitez: 23 wins, 10 losses, 9 draws-55% ratio)
People forget that he has also made bold decisions along the way, with high profile players such as John Terry and Frank Lampard finding themselves benched, with younger players taking their place in a new look side. Criticism of Chelsea’s previous regime under Di Matteo was to do with the notion that ‘player power’ ruled the club, with senior players like the two mentioned becoming almost ‘undroppable.’ This has all changed under Benitez, with efforts in training rewarded and younger, more explosive players have changed the dynamics of the team for the good. Whilst Fernando Torres has still not hit the heights we became so used to at Liverpool, there has been a noticeable improvement in his goal ratio and motivation on the pitch. Elsewhere, fellow countryman Juan Mata, has again impressed with a series of eye catching performances and Eden Hazard looks to be a player of unquestionable ability.
Talk of dressing room unrest has now been ruled out with players such as Juan Mata and David Luiz reiterating the excellent relationship Benitez enjoys with the players and they are now look reasonably comfortable to secure a Champions League spot, a minimum requirement of Abramovich. Further to this, he reached the semi finals of the FA Cup (losing to favourites Man City 2-1), and he recently masterminded his sides progression to the Europa League final (facing Benfica) by beating FC Basle over two legs.
Chelsea fans, like the clubs enigmatic owner, crave success. Whilst it is evident that the Stamford Bridge ‘boo boys’ are starting to lower their volume with every victory Benitez delivers, it is inevitable that the Spaniard doesn’t fit into the long term plans of the club. The much speculated return of fans favourite Jose Mourinho is becoming more likely with every week and Benitez’s accomplishments are rather unfortunately being swept under the rug.
If, by the end of the season when Benitez’s P45 has been passed over Abramovich’s table, and Chelsea have secured a third place finish in the League and overcome Benfica in the Europa League final, i think there is going to be a huge grin on the face of the Spaniard, and rightly so. Who is to say the next man’s tenure at the helm is not going to end in disaster like so many other managerial appointments made by Abramovich since Mourinho’s departure in 2007. Would Mourinho’s possible return take the club to new levels or is the fairytale ending becoming too cliche in the football world.
Time will tell, but Benitez can walk away with his head held high knowing he couldn’t of done much more, knowing he beat the critics, handled the criticism in a professional way, and strengthened his managerial CV in the process. He is the winner in this chapter, and who knows, Chelsea might even miss him in the next few seasons however unlikely that may sound. Your call Abramovich.