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Redknapp, Benitez face difficult tasks

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Warren Barton

Warren Barton draws on 16 years of professional soccer experience as a studio analyst for FOX Soccer. With more than 350 Barclays Premier League appearances, Barton starred for Wimbledon before rising to prominence with Newcastle United and the England national team. Follow him on Twitter.

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The shakeups in the Premier League started this week, and we have to begin with the new managers. Rafa Benitez is one of two new Premier League managers this weekend, and while it's likely even Mark Hughes expected to get the sack across town, it’s clear that the Chelsea faithful are unhappy with the team’s decision to remove Roberto Di Matteo for a man who once insulted the team and its history.

I’ve been in the game for more than twenty years and I don’t think I have ever heard anything like what we did at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Rafa is proof that fans never forget -- and if history is any guide, he’s going to struggle at Chelsea as a result.

Di Matteo was loved as a player and a manager, and there is a lot of frustration in the stands. The fans know their owner wants to win, and while a lot of us disagree with Roman Abramovich’s decision, everyone in the game knows that if you don’t win games as a manager, you pay the price. Chelsea had slipped in the past few weeks despite all the quality at their disposal. But to take on a man who once said the team was “plastic” and had bought their wins – that doesn’t sit well.

The one thing that works in Rafa’s favor is that Chelsea’s next few games are all London derbies – including the big game on Wednesday live on FOX Soccer against Fulham. The fans will focus on the players and winning those games. If Rafa can keep his head down and get some points, then the fans will be quiet. If not, then things will be very tough. Speaking as a former player, had I heard that from the stands about my new manager, I’d be shaken. Rafa has a lot of work to do to overcome that.

It is no shock that Queen’s Park fired Mark; we talked about this weeks back and the fact is, he didn’t win a series of must-win games. Most of us were surprised when he wasn’t fired on Monday after losing to Southampton. Now QPR have got a proven coach in the door and they have the time and the talent to stay up.

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But I am surprised by some of the reaction to ’Arry, and I say his name that way deliberately. People underestimate Redknapp because of his accent and his persona. A lot of people claim he’s just a wheeler-dealer and doesn’t know anything about tactics. The reality is that his man-management skills are excellent and his record speaks for itself. Spurs would be in the Champions League if not for Chelsea’s win last year in Munich. He took that team from the depths and should get the credit.

Some people point to his tenure at Southampton, but in a career as long as Redknapp’s, you’re going to have a blemish or two on your record. Even Sir Alex Ferguson had a few rough patches. The bottom line is that Redknapp is great with his players, the fans and media, and has a habit of turning average players into good ones -- Younes Kaboul comes right to mind. Honestly, if Redknapp had gone to Cambridge, people would call him a philosopher of the game. But because he’s from East London, he’s a sharp. That’s not fair to him or his record.

It’s a bit of an irony that Redknapp and Benitez are making their debuts this week. Redknapp of course once had a situation like Benitez does now at Chelsea. When Redknapp left Portsmouth for Southampton, he was treated in much the same way, and it didn’t work out well.

We’ve got some huge games midweek on FOX Soccer and FOX Soccer Plus, and Wednesday is a critical test for Everton and Arsenal, live on Plus at 2:30 ET. This game will show us if the Toffees are the real deal or not. They have shown they have the parts to make a run at the top four – but they have also shown a lot of stage-fright when the lights come on. Everton are better as the underdogs but that will have to change, and a good place to start would be here.

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They face an Arsenal team that is all potential, potential, potential – but ultimately pretenders. They got good results against Spurs and Montpellier, but didn’t impress against Villa. Long-term, the next six months are critical for the Gunners. Arsenal finally have some money to spend, and how Arsene Wenger handles that will define the club for seasons to come.

Over on FOX Soccer at the same time Wednesday, Rafa will be hoping that the fans focus on the games and not on him. The fact that Chelsea face Fulham and then West Ham is a good thing because the derbies will trump the protests. Martin Jol, on the other hand, has to get Fulham back to sorts. They lost badly to Sunderland and then were stifled by a very tough Stoke team. The key for Fulham is Dimitar Berbatov – that Chelsea back line has gaps, and he can exploit them.

Quickly, I’d like to congratulate Steve Clarke and his West Bromwich Albion side. I remember him as a young coach at Newcastle and it is great to see him getting the best out of the Baggies. I hope the fans are enjoying the ride as long as it lasts! I’d also like to congratulate Sir Alex, who had a statue unveiled at Old Trafford by his wife, Lady Cathy, this weekend. He showed a lot of humor and humility on the occasion, and all the plaudits are totally deserved. For me, he’s the greatest coach in any sport, on both sides of the pond.

Remember that you can always follow me on Twitter @WarrenBarton2 and ask a question to any of us @FOXSoccer. I do hope you join us for our midweek games, and as always, thanks for reading and for watching!

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