LONDON: Now you see him, now you don’t. Rafa Benitez, having just become a regular date on the sports conference circuit, has gone back to his own basics – football management – with Chelsea writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
He might even have Didier Drogba at his command on a short-term loan deal.
Last mid-season Benitez had three discussions with Chelsea before turning down an offer to take over from Andre Villas-Boas as caretaker. This time he conceded, despite knowing that the Spaniard Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich really wants is Pep Guardiola.
Benitez, who still lives on Merseyside even though a spell with Internazionale followed his departure from Liverpool, has always insisted he was waiting for the right offer to return to the Premier League. Chelsea may appear to be the wrong opportunity – he is, after all, the ninth manager in nine years under Abramovich – but his return is a reminder that he wants to be a player on the football rather than the conference stage.
Announcing that Benitez was an “interim” rather than permanent appointment, Chelsea said in a statement: “Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season.
“The owner and the board believe that, in Benitez, we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives.
“The 52-year-old Spaniard is due to meet the players at the training ground in Cobham tomorrow. The two-time UEFA Manager of the Year comes with outstanding pedigree. He began his managerial career in his homeland, most notably at Valencia where he built a reputation as one of Europe’s top coaches by winning the Spanish League twice and the UEFA Cup.
“He then spent six years at Liverpool and led them to their fifth European Cup and an FA Cup.”
The length of Benitez’s contract – for 18 months but with a break option next summer – appears the clearest indication yet of Abramovich’s determination to land Guardiola once the former Barcelona boss completes his one-year sabbatical in New York.
Wednesday night’s announcement was also the culmination of 24 hours extraordinary even by Chelsea’s standards.
What began on Tuesday night with Di Matteo finally axing Fernando Torres against Juventus, ended this evening with the arrival of the man who made the £50m flop one of the best strikers in the world.
However Benitez remains a figure of distaste among Chelsea fans after his run-ins with former Blues boss Jose Mourinho and mixed records at both Anfield and Inter Milan. But that failed to deter Benitez, who spent Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, from where he agreed his Chelsea contract in principle.
Abramovich is understood to have considering sacking Di Matteo even before Tuesday’s match. At 4am on Wednesday morning chairman Bruce Buck and chief executive Ron Gourlay deliver the bad news at the club’s training ground after the return flight to London.
As for Drogba, FIFA is considering a request from last season’s Champions League-winning hero for authorisation to be registered outside an open registration period for a club on a loan basis.
Drogba, who quit Chelsea after scoring the winning penalty in the Champions League final, is now out of season with Shanghai Shenhua. However he is concerned about remaining matchfit ahead of the African Nations Cup in South Africa in January.
Existing FIFA rules prevent Drogba from representing another club until January 1.
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