Benitez joins Chelsea soap opera
Chelsea welcomed a new coach in Rafael Benitez and closed the door on a potentially explosive controversy in English football on yet another turbulent day for the European champions.
With priceless timing, Benitez was presented Thursday as the team's ninth manager in nine years just minutes after Chelsea's complaint that one of its black players had been subjected to racist abuse by a referee was dismissed by the Football Association.
To many clubs, the scenario would prove acutely embarrassing. Yet for the soap opera that is Chelsea Football Club, it's simply another day at the office.
Only at Chelsea would the manager be fired six months after winning the Champions League, the biggest prize in club football. Yet, that was the fate that befell Roberto Di Matteo on Wednesday.
In typically brutal fashion, Di Matteo was given the news at a 4 a.m. training-ground meeting - on the team's return from a Champions League defeat against Juventus in Italy - by the advisors of ruthless Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
Without even meeting Benitez, Abramovich has temporarily handed the reins to the former Liverpool coach who has been out of work for nearly two years following a disappointing spell at Italian side Inter Milan. His initial contract at Chelsea lasts until the end of the season, when Abramovich is widely expected to turn to Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona coach who is currently in New York enjoying a one-year break from football
''I will meet him today,'' Benitez said, when asked about his relationship with his new boss.
''What will happen in the future, you never know.''
The only thing you do know is controversy is just around the corner with Chelsea, something Benitez discovered at first hand.
His presentation press conference was interspersed with a barrage of questions about Chelsea's role in the latest racism case to blight the English game.
The FA said referee Mark Clattenburg had no case to answer after being accused by Chelsea midfielder Ramires of saying ''shut up you monkey'' to teammate John Obi Mikel during an Oct. 28 match against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
The FA said it believes the accusations were made by Ramires ''in good faith,'' adding: ''It is entirely possible for a witness to be genuinely mistaken and convincing in his belief.''
Yet, it still left a sour taste in the mouth, with Clattenburg having been relentlessly hounded by the press over the last few weeks with his job and reputation at stake.
''To know you were innocent of something but that there was the opportunity for it to wreck your career was truly frightening,'' Clattenburg said in a statement.
Benitez was quizzed about whether Clattenburg, who has been removed from duty by the Premier League for four straight weekends, should be compensated by Chelsea and given a proper apology by the club.
Steve Atkins - the club's head of communications - quickly intervened, directing the press to the part of a club statement released on its website that read: ''Chelsea accepts the Football Association's decision regarding Mark Clattenburg and welcomes the fact the FA recognizes the club and players were correct in reporting the matter.''
Chelsea, of course, was at the heart of the last racism scandal that gripped English football when John Terry was banned for four matches for hurling a racial slur at an opponent during a league game.
That case took a year to be resolved and was particularly damaging, with the fallout leading to Terry's international retirement, the resignation of England coach Fabio Capello and question marks being raised about the desire and ability of football authorities to combat racism.
At least the latest case has been wrapped up within a month.
The focus will now turn on Benitez, who has seven months to prove to Abramovich that he is the man to take Chelsea forward.
Many believe he is merely keeping the seat warm for Guardiola and he was coy about his long-term prospects.
''I don't care about the short-term (deal), what I have in my head is to win every game,'' he said. ''We will see what happens - in seven months we can win some trophies.''
Knowing Chelsea, there will be plenty of twists and turns in Benitez's tenure, however brief it is.
''It's a great challenge,'' he said. ''I have been waiting for this opportunity. I could have gone to another country with big, big money, (but) I wanted to stay in Europe, in England. I always said my priority would be the Premier League, with a top side. This is perfect.''