FOX Soccer Exclusive
Benitez, Chelsea on verge of history
If Chelsea holds on to a 2-1 first-leg lead in the Europa League semifinal against FC Basel (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET), it will be the third time in five years that the Blues have reached a European final. Each one will have been achieved with a different temporary manger, all of whom have ended up leaving at the end of the season. For Chelsea, this is becoming something of a tradition: others crave stability and a coherent and consistent philosophy, but this club seems to thrive on turmoil.
As April turns to May, so Chelsea’s thoughts turn to who might be its coach next season. Jose Mourinho made clear after Real Madrid’s Champions League elimination on Tuesday that he would be open to a return to Stamford Bridge. He was an enormous success there, winning the Premier League in his first two seasons before falling out with owner Roman Abramovich in his third year in part because of the way forward Andriy Shevchenko was imposed on the squad, while other areas, notably the center of defense, were neglected. He left in September the following season but has since made up with Abramovich.
"I haven't made a decision because I have a contract here [with Madrid],” Mourinho said. “In football people break contracts when they want to but, more than the contract, it’s the respect I have for the club and for the players. I know that in England I am loved by the fans and the media, who are fair with me."
Mourinho added: "They criticize me when they have to but give me credit when I deserve it. I know I am loved by some clubs, especially one, but in Spain it's a bit different, some people hate me, many of them are in this room [Spanish journalists], so it’s difficult for me because I like the club."
That’s as clear a come-and-get-me plea as is possible to imagine, but this is Mourinho –and this is Chelsea – so nothing is quite so simple as that. Mourinho is as political as any manager, an adept provocateur, somebody who relishes the opportunity to use media appearances to manipulate public opinion. By declaring his openness to the possibility of returning to Chelsea, Mourinho has done two things; first, he has reminded Chelsea that he loves the club so that even if he is not appointed this time the option remains open; and secondly, he has alerted other clubs of his availability without weakening his negotiating position.
The past few weeks have seen a steady escalation in talk of a Mourinho return to Chelsea but what’s been notable is that the majority of the rumors have come from his side rather than that of the club. Chelsea, seemingly run on the whim of Abramovich, is a notoriously difficult club to read. There were even suggestions that Benitez might be asked to stay on and although that possibility has faded, it’s certainly true that there has been interest in Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini. Mourinho, meanwhile, could have offers from Paris Saint-Germain, who seem most likely to lose Carlo Ancelotti to Real Madrid (where he will replace Mourinho), and Monaco, now bankrolled by the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev and all but certain to secure promotion back to Ligue 1 in the next week or two (although there remains an issue of how the club will accommodate itself to the French tax system).
So while it’s entirely possible Mourinho could be back at Stamford Bridge next season, it’s far from a done deal. For all the uncertainty, Chelsea stands third in the table and, were it to qualify for next season’s Champions League and win the Europa League, it would represent a positive season.
"It's what the lads have come to expect at this club," said defender Gary Cahill earlier in the week who returned from a knee injury in Sunday’s 2-0 Premier League win over Swansea City. "It's nothing different to what we're used to and the demands that are on us. It is in our hands, it will be difficult because we're up against some good teams but we're in a good position."
Benitez must take credit for that, juggling a slender squad through a hectic period. Tactically, he got the first leg against Basel spot on, negating the wingers who had caused Tottenham Hotspur such problems in the first leg. But for some lax finishing and a bewildering penalty awarded to Basel, Chelsea would have won much more comfortably. The Blues will be without the suspended left back Ashley Cole for the return but Basel seems to have run out of form, a 3-0 defeat at home to Luzern meaning it has won just one of its last seven games in all competitions.
Asked about the prospect of handing over to Mourinho, an at-times bitter rival when Benitez was at Liverpool, Chelsea's interim boss was not interested in adding fuel to the fire.
He said: "It's not my business. I have to concentrate on this game. That's it. I think it's quite important." Pressed for his opinion on Mourinho's reference to moving "where people love me" Benitez said: "Each one has his way. My way is to concentrate on the next game, that's it."
In the other semifinal, Fenerbahce goes to Lisbon to face Benfica (live, FOX Soccer Plus, 3 p.m. ET), protecting a 1-0 lead from the first leg, although having missed a penalty and wasted a number of chances, it knows it could have had a much greater advantage as it seeks a first final. "It would be great for Turkish football, for the club and for the fans,” said the forward Moussa Sow. “What we are achieving is huge. To face Benfica at this stage is exceptional and we will do everything to reach the final; why can't we win it?"
FOXSoccer.com's wire services contributed to this report.
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