Soccer

Benitez turns boos to cheers for Chelsea fans

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AMSTERDAM (AP)

Rafa Benitez proved again that winning is everything in sports.

Good for the Spanish coach he's made it a habit.

Long reviled and ridiculed by Chelsea fans, Benitez doggedly stuck with his managerial instincts during a nerve wrecking half year in charge of the London club to give wealthy owner Roman Abramovich the Europa League Cup with a 2-1 win over Benfica Lisbon on Wednesday in his last big game in charge.

`'You have to win for people,'' Benitez said. `'OK, we won. People will say `yes, it is not bad'.'' Not even half bad.

On Wednesday night there was none of the booing that marked his first game in charge of Chelsea in the dead of winter. Instead he was soaking up the celebrations of a sea of blue-and-white flags after Branislav Ivanovic soared high in injury time to head home the winner.

`'I was just enjoying,'' he said. `'Everybody was happy, so I was happy too.''

He punched the air and was hugged by players and club officials alike.

At 53, he has now won the Europa League Cup, its predecessor the UEFA Cup with Valencia and the UEFA Champions League Cup with Liverpool.

The Liverpool connection was part of his problem this year.

Chelsea and Liverpool are bitter rivals and fans were shocked when in midseason he replaced Roberto Di Matteo, the very coach who had won Chelsea's biggest trophy in its history only six months earlier, the UEFA Champions League.

And when Benitez started out with a series of lackluster results, the criticism was relentless.

Yet he persevered. `'It was a team in transition with young players. It was quite difficult,'' Benitez said.

One of his most controversial decisions - sticking with fellow Spaniard Fernando Torres in the face of criticism the once-great striker was past it - paid huge dividends on Wednesday.

With one move on the hour-mark, Torres did much to save the reputation of the two Spaniards at Chelsea.

Long before Ivanovic's goal, Torres had already set Chelsea on its way with a superb solo effort.

He first wrestled himself past Ezequiel Garay, spread and arm wide to leave the formidable Luisao standing, and then produced the speed and skills to find a narrow angle to slot home.

It was vintage Torres, reminiscent of the 2008 European championships which made him a superstar. Yet for two years at Chelsea, he rarely even got close to recapturing those days.

Still, Benitez stuck by him, lining him up time and again when fans wanted to see something new.

Benitez knew better.

`'A lot of people said that Rafa was appointed to make the best of Fernando, and he improved a lot because he was working hard,'' Benitez said. `'Today, he made the difference again.''

Strangely enough, with a cup in hand, Benitez will soon say goodbye to Chelsea.

Worn down by constant criticism from fans, Benitez announced in February he would leave Chelsea at the end of the season, and everything points towards a return by Jose Mourinho after a disappointing stint at Real Madrid.

Benitez should have no trouble finding a new home. After all, beyond the European trophies, he has won the Spanish league twice.

More importantly, with Torres he has shown he is a man who can rekindle old magic.



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