For a tournament hardly anybody in England cares about, the Club World Cup could do an awful lot of damage.
In retrospect, Rafa Benitez was on a hiding to nothing in Japan. If his Chelsea had won it would have been largely dismissed as a meaningless bauble – as it was when he won the tournament with Inter Milan; the fact it lost simply adds to the case against him.
The theory was that the Club World Cup was useful time away from the pressure of the Premier League and the boo-boys of Stamford Bridge, a chance almost for a mini pre-season in which Benitez could impose his ideas on the squad; in the wake of the defeat it feels more as if the momentum built up by victories over Nordsjaelland and Sunderland has been lost.
What makes it worse for Benitez is that just about the only man in English football who does seem to take the Club World Cup seriously is his boss Roman Abramovich. It’s never easy to ascertain what the Russian thinks, of course, but it’s understood that Chelsea’s limp performance in the Super Cup final, when it was beaten 4-1 by Atletico Madrid in a game English sides have generally regarded with indifference, played a major part in persuading him that Roberto Di Matteo was not the right man to take the club forward.
Chelsea was poor against Corinthians, never able to develop any passing rhythm, frustrated as so many teams have been over the past 12 months by the discipline and shape of Tite’s side. Fernando Torres, presented with a chance to level in the final minutes, was again found wanting. Perhaps it’s unfair to write off the improvement in his game over the past couple of weeks on the basis of one opportunity wasted, but the nature of Chelsea at the moment is to invite scrutiny. Other than availability, one of the few arguments in support of Benitez’s appointment was that he might somehow be able to coax Torres back to the form he enjoyed during his peak at Anfield. In that environment, it’s inevitable that Torres’s every movement will be analyzed; which, of course, will make it all the harder for him to bury the doubts that have surely contributed to his poor form.
In practical terms, it’s hard to assess what impact the defeat will have on Benitez. Given he is only “interim first-team manager”, a designation Chelsea uses in all its official literature, failing to win the Club World Cup will probably decrease the likelihood of Benitez being appointed on a more permanent basis – although that was always unlikely anyway unless he achieves something wholly unexpected such as winning the Premier League.
What it will do, though, is add to the ammunition against him – from fans, but also perhaps from players. If team spirit, as the former Tottenham and Scotland forward Steve Archibald once noted, is an illusion glimpsed in the moment of victory, it follows that defeats, even in competitions players care relatively little about, will hinder its generation, and that will make Chelsea’s chances of salvaging something from the season – success in the Capital One Cup or Europa League or another FA Cup win – all the more difficult. A Brazilian television channel reported overhearing Oscar, who was left on the bench until the 71st minute of the game, criticizing his manager – defeat brings discontent.
Chelsea’s next game is at Leeds United in the Capital One Cup quarter-final on Wednesday, a game that suddenly looks like far more than a tie in a competition of debatable significance. There then follows a relatively easy run of league fixture over the Christmas period: home to Aston Villa, away to Norwich City and Everton then home to QPR; win those and a tilt at the league title might not look so ridiculous. Drop points in more than one game and the tail-end of the season is likely to be a glum plod.
Benitez isn’t the only manager who needs a good Christmas. This spell of four games in 10 days may be hated by coaches but it brings early season narratives to the boil. Arsene Wenger, not under intense pressure but facing greater criticism than at any previous point of his 16-year reign at Arsenal, needs to get his team into the top four. Roberto Mancini can’t afford to allow the gap between Manchester City and Manchester United to open any further. Nigel Adkins seems to have the support of fans and has weathered the early-season doubts but if Southampton were to slip back into the relegation zone after games against Sunderland, Fulham, Stoke and Arsenal, he could be under pressure again.
And then there’s Martin O’Neill, self-assured and pugnacious, and apparently with the support of fans and the board at Sunderland. After playing Southampton, though, his side face a tough program of matches at home to City and Tottenham and away to Liverpool. Were his side to fail to win any of those games, it may be that patience begins to wear thin.
But for now it’s Benitez who seems in the worst position. Although that probably says more about the environment at Chelsea than about him.