Chelsea pressure takes its toll on Benitez
LONDON (AFP) –
As Rafael Benitez’s angry outburst succinctly demonstrated, the manager’s job at Chelsea has become the most uniquely pressurised position in English football.
Booed and barracked from day one, Benitez was able to maintain a diplomatic silence for just three months before the pressure told.
Speaking after his side’s 2-0 win at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup on Wednesday, he let rip at the club’s fans for their protests against him and even rebuked the Chelsea management for appointing him on only an ‘interim’ basis.
Although the Spaniard weighed his words carefully, even appearing to read from a sheet of paper at times, the British tabloids were quick to brand it a ‘rant’, fuelling speculation about his immediate job security.
Whether Benitez makes it to the end of the season or not, it is clear his Chelsea tenure will not be extended beyond the initial terms of his season-long contract.
It leaves the European champions contemplating yet another search for a new manager, but obvious candidates to pick up the baton are thinner on the ground than ever before.
With owner Roman Abramovich’s number one target, Pep Guardiola, having elected to join Bayern Munich, British bookmakers have installed Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho as the odds-on favourite to return to the club whose modern image he did more to shape than anyone.
Be it Mourinho or someone else, whovever succeeds Benitez will represent the 10th full-time managerial appointment made by Abramovich since he acquired the club in 2003.
Since Mourinho left in 2007 after delivering two league titles, two League Cups and one FA Cup in a hugely successful three-year spell, only Carlo Ancelotti has managed to complete a full season in the Chelsea dug-out.
Luiz Felipe Scolari lasted seven months, Andre Villas-Boas nine, while Roberto Di Matteo was only five months into the two-year contract he signed last June when he was sacked in November.
Ancelotti gave Abramovich the league and FA Cup double, Di Matteo the coveted Champions League, but the impatient Russian appears impervious to sentiment.
For all his achievements in the game, Benitez’s Liverpool connections meant he faced an uphill task from the start and the interim status conferred upon him by his new bosses spoke volumes about their own hesitancy.
He acknowledged as much in Wednesday’s explosive press conference at the Riverside Stadium, but his most telling remarks concerned the expectations surrounding the current Chelsea squad.
Last season’s Champions League triumph in Munich represented the last hurrah for the team built by Mourinho, but Abramovich has been reluctant to hand the Portuguese’s successors time to construct a team of their own.
“It’s a team in transition — they (the fans) don’t realise,” Benitez said.
“In the past, we had (Didier) Drogba, (Michael) Essien, (Salomon) Kalou. These players, it was a very strong squad, players with experience in the Premier League.
“Now we have a group of players with talent, really good players with talent, but they need time. It’s a time of transition.”
Abramovich has invested heavily in players like Juan Mata and Eden Hazard to move the club forward, but he seems unwilling to accept that there should be any slackening off in results while the team search for a new identity.
Chelsea’s league form has dipped in recent weeks, with just three wins in eight games, but they remain in the top four and are still in contention for honours in both the FA Cup and the Europa League.
Benitez’s interim remit means he has always known that on-pitch success might not be enough to alter his fate, but his potential successors must wonder exactly what it takes to keep Abramovich onside.