Is it time for the Chelsea players to support Rafa Benitez?
Rafael Benitez’s rallying call (or a rant, as described by some) to Chelsea supporters after the FA Cup win over Middlesbrough would have equally appropriate for his own players after a tame defeat to Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League on Thursday.
The defeat precedes another match in a competition that Benitez could end up winning – the FA Cup – against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The weak effort provided by his players in a boisterous atmosphere couldn’t have given him much confidence leading into a match against a team who will be looking for an emphatic response after being knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid on Tuesday.
Benitez’ controlled attack on the minority of supporters who were affecting the team performance at Stamford Bridge could have equally – and rightly – been directed at his multi-million pound assembled squad.
It’s been suggested that the much-publicised “interim” tag has allowed the players to fall into a hole of complacency, which has meant not giving as much effort for a controversial appointment who will not be at the club at the end of the season.
But that seems an excuse that the experienced Chelsea squad cannot get away with and must use all of their resolve to dig themselves out of what is becoming a disastrous season and end it on a positive note.
They currently lie in fourth place – just within the lucrative Champions League spots – but with Arsenal and others breathing behind them, the job is far from finished.
Unlike last season, when they finished fifth and won a place into this year’s Champions League by virtue of winning the trophy against Bayern Munich, they don’t have that back-up option this season. It is simple enough – they have to get within the top four to play in the tournament next season.
If they fail to achieve it, the anger will be directed at the outgoing Benitez (some of it deserved) and at the Chelsea hierarchy but, as usual, the Chelsea players will be afforded sympathy rather than criticism for failing to produce on the pitch.
Rather than listen to the important facts of the manager’s words at the Middlesbrough press conference, i.e. that they won’t make the Champions League if the support is not united, the playing staff seem even further away from either publicly supporting their manager or offering comforting words to their supporters.
Captain John Terry and stalwart Frank Lampard, the heartbeart of the club on the pitch and more importantly in the changing rooms, have had their disagreements with the beleaguered coach.
Reports of a bust-up between Terry and Benitez arose after a league defeat at Newcastle in February, but were quickly denied by both men. Lampard’s contract (or a lack of a renewal) has manifested itself as a major issue as the fans rightly voice their support for one of their most consistent performers.
Benitez has tried to handle both issues with diplomacy and dignity. He has refrained from getting involved in the contractual negotiations with Lampard whilst maintaining that his non-selection of Terry is simply related to nurturing back to match fitness from a knee injury.
Sadly, both men have failed to understand that and seem to have helped turn the tide against Benitez rather than temporarily support him to get the team on winning ways.
Terry’s defence of his team-mates after the lacklustre display in the 2-0 defeat at Manchester City was an over-sight as Benitez was vindicated by his views on the basis of the performance.
It is reported that Terry suggested the squad deserved more respect having won the European Cup last year. But it’s a European competition that they are no longer involved in and they can’t fall back on its success last season to justify poor performances in big matches.
Lampard has been a reliable performer on the field under Benitez’s reign; but Benitez needs his two most experienced players to come out publicly to try and call for more unity.
Both have remained faithfully silent, lest they upset their Chelsea supporters even further.
They will face a Manchester United side – who will be looking for a result and performance to mend the broken hearts crushed by Madrid – on Sunday and they need to muster dressing room spirit to get the results they need to finish the season on a high.
If not, Benitez will be gone by the end of the season and new appointment (whoever it maybe) will be forced to spend a year in the Europa League.
It will be utter devastation for owner Roman Abramovich, to go from a competition that brought him into the game, to a competition that is unfortunately viewed as a secondary and less glamorous event.
Benitez, as always, will try his best to meet the demands of the club; but it is now time for his players to step up and meet him half way by delivering more consistent, match-winning performances.