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Can success quiet Benitez detractors?

FOX Soccer: Preview of Thursday’s UEFA Europa League action.
FOX Soccer: Preview of Thursday’s UEFA Europa League action.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

What is left for Rafa Benitez this season?

In their private moments, managers presumably dream of what might be, picture themselves as Bill Shankly-style demagogues, standing arms aloft as hundreds of thousands pack the public spaces of their town to salute them and their team as they parade a trophy after a glorious final. They must imagine themselves as the leaders of a movement, players and fans behind them, pulling the strings on the way to glory.

Benitez must know that this isn’t going to happen before Chelsea's Europa League clash against Steaua Bucuresti (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 4 p.m. ET).

On Sunday, at Old Trafford, he was a man alone. Manchester United fans hate him because he used to manage Liverpool and because he has engaged in such public enmity with their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. So they abused him. Chelsea fans hate him because several years ago he made some mildly disparaging remarks about their plastic flags which supposedly revealed his contempt for them as a club – and now apparently because of his cautious football and insistence on squad rotation. So they abused him and, after 16 minutes, as they always do, applauded, saluting his predecessor Roberto Di Matteo, who once wore the number 16 shirt for Chelsea. Even Ferguson, Benitez claims, refused to shake hands with him.

Chelsea fans, of course, have a right to boo Benitez – and it should be said that so far their protests, whatever you may think of their validity, have generally remained on the right side of what is acceptable. Perhaps there was a tone of disrespect in what Benitez said that went beyond the seeming banality of the words themselves. Perhaps there’s even something noble in the refusal just to shut up and accept how things are. Perhaps they are justified. But it’s hard not to wonder whether Benitez has just become a convenient focus for the sense of dissatisfaction felt generally at Stamford Bridge because the superiority achieved with two successive titles under Jose Mourinho has been squandered.

Benitez is the seventh manager in five and a half years since Mourinho’s departure, a rate of turnover described by Richard Bevan, chief executive of the League Managers' Association, as a “serious embarrassment.” The person responsible for that, of course, is the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich. It could even be argued that his decision to impose Andriy Shevchenko on the squad initiated the process of destabilization that led ultimately to Mourinho's departure. Yet Chelsea fans can’t turn against Abramovich because he bankrolls the club. If he turns the funding off, meltdown awaits. So Benitez gets the flak instead.

Chelsea remains in the FA Cup and the Europa League. It lies fourth in the Premier League, two points behind Tottenham Hotspur with a game in hand and five points clear of Arsenal. Finishing in the top four and so qualifying for next season’s Champions League is pretty much essential, something Benitez made clear in his attack on fans and the board after the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough.

He could yet win the Europa League and the FA Cup. That must be the aim. Yet, really, who would he be doing it for? On Sunday, Chelsea was 2-0 down at Manchester United when Benitez brought on John Obi Mikel and Eden Hazard. The two changed the game and Chelsea fought back to draw 2-2. Another manager at another club might have been praised; Benitez was criticized for not having started with Mikel and Hazard. Perhaps the critics were right but you get the sense that Benitez could invent a whole new formation using players nobody had ever heard of from the youth team and cure the common cold and still not get a jot of credit. He can’t win.

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And yet maybe he – or at least Chelsea – will win. Players seem bewildered by what has gone on this season but Sunday’s fightback at least showed a level of resolve to keep battling, demonstrated that the stubbornness that led Chelsea to the Champions League last season has not vanished. "I hope we can keep this character and momentum going, but sometimes it's quite difficult when the season is going like this,” said Mikel, while Cesar Azpilicueta spoke of the “need to stick together.”

But what are players – and perhaps fans – rallying behind? Benitez, in a sense, has made it easier by insisting he will leave at the end of the season come what may, so Chelsea fans don’t have the fear that success might lead to him being awarded a new contract. But there is still a bizarre sense that if Chelsea do win the FA Cup or the Europa League, different elements will be celebrating entirely different – even contradictory – things. Supporters would welcome the silverware, while Benitez would regard success as personal vindication over those same fans for doubting him.

For success to be possible in the Europa League, though, Chelsea must first overcome a 1-0 deficit against Steaua Bucuresti and to do that will take a performance far, far better than the one it produced in Romania last week.

Elsewhere, Newcastle United also faces an intriguing home tie, having drawn 0-0 at Anzhi Makhachkakla, but excellent as its defensive performance was, Alan Pardew’s side is vulnerable to an away goal. The other English team left in the competition, Tottenham, should have no such worries, having hammered Internazionale 3-0 in the first leg.

Meanwhile, Bordeaux looks to overcome a 1-0 first-leg defeat to Benfica, while Rubin Kazan, conquerors of the defending champions Atletico Madrid in the last round, hosts the one remaining Spanish side Levante after a goalless draw in the first leg.

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