LONDON: Chelsea fans joke that Rafa Benitez has agreed a contract for two seasons: winter and spring. Doubtless he would have preferred a better start than a goalless draw against off-form champions Manchester City.
However, not even Benitez – Chelsea’s ninth manager in nine years – is in doubt that owner Roman Abramovich’s preferred managerial target remains Pep Guardiola.
The ex-Barcelona coach has told all suitors that he will wait until February before deciding on his next ‘project’. He has been linked also with Manchester City, Manchester United, FC Bayern, Milan and even Brazil after the five-times world champions’ dismissal this past week of Mano Menezes. Any of them might appear a safer option than Abramovich’s Chelsea, an owner and club to which concepts such as patience and development are strangers.
Roberto Di Matteo left on Wednesday morning after his sacking at 4am without too many regrets. He is guaranteed a generous salary settlement for the next 18 months and, when he does choose to work again, a c.v. with a Champions League and an FA Cup is a powerful calling card.
As for Benitez, he appears to have ‘fallen on his feet,’ as Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out.
In 2010 Benitez took over Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale and, after just six months’ work with his predecessor’s team, was crowned world club champion. Now history is repeating itself: early next month he will take Di Matteo’s team to Japan where Chelsea will be favourites to win the FIFA Club World Cup for him again.
Beyond that Benitez must bring his coaching skills for organisation and discipline to bear on a Chelsea team forever trying to marry the contradictory ambitions of positive results with entertaining football. Ferguson has managed it but he has had many years in which to perfect the technique; Arsene Wenger is the acknowledged master of attractive football but Arsenal have won nothing for seven years.
Benitez will not enjoy the luxury of time, whether Abramovich’s millions skew Guardiola’s judgment or not.
Perhaps one of the reasons for choosing Benitez was to try to bring the best out of Fernando Torres, as he had done at Liverpool. If he can manage that then Benitez will win around many Chelsea fans still resentful at his antagonistic attitude to the Blues when he was Liverpool boss.
Predictably, then, Torres was restored to the starting line-up after being dropped to the bench in Turin against Juventus in midweek by Di Matteo. John Obi Mikel was retained in midfield, albeit under the shadow of an FA disciplinary charge over his clash with FIFA referee Mark Clattenburg following the stormy home defeat by Manchester United.
Clattenburg had been cleared by the FA of having made a racist comment to Mikel but that ‘history’ made this a difficult match not only for Benitez and Torres but also for referee Chris Foy as well as for City after their midweek Champions League elimination.
Manager Roberto Mancini forgot his experiments with a three-man defence and reverted to a standard 4-4-2 formation with Edin Dzeko partering Sergio Aguero in attack.
Chelsea’s managerial switch was the focus of early attention.
Benitez was booed on his appearance before kickoff with some fans holding up posters objecting to his appointment. To emphasis the point, the crowd rose to its feet in the 16th minute to chant Di Matteo’s name – 16 having been the number he wore as a Chelsea player.
Dzeko had one shot blocked by Petr Cech before Aguero, offered a ‘free’ header in the 41st minute, wasted the best goal-scoring opportunity of the first half.
Chelsea created next to nothing. Their best player was leftback Ashley Cole who is apparently due to join Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the season. Torres tried hard but was generally well controlled by back-to-form Vincent Kompany, enjoying his best game of the season.
In other games Tottenham dismissed West Ham United 3-1 at White Hart Lane with a hat-trick from Jermain Defore. West Ham’s consolation was a first goal of the season from Andy Carroll.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers deserved more than one point on his return to Swansea for a 0-0 draw. The Reds had Jose Enrique’s first-half strike ruled out for offside, Raheem Sterling hit the bar and Jonjo Shelvey’s late strike was well saved by keeper Gerhard Tremmel.
Man of the match Pablo Hernandez had Swansea’s best chance but his low free-was pushed tipped wide by Pepe Reina. Ashley Williams saw former Swan Joe Allen clear his header off the line.
Southampton edged out of the relegation zone with a 2-0 win over Newcastle.
** Dave Sexton, outstanding coach and one-time manager of Chelsea, Manchester United and England Under-21s, has died aged 82.
# # # #