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‘The Interim One’: Do Chelsea fans really need to fuss about Rafa?

Chelsea v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League

As the (now-trademark) 16th minute cheers for Roberto Di Matteo reached a crescendo and the vociferous boos rung about Stamford Bridge, a certain stout Spaniard showed tremendous levels of professionalism and calm, ignoring the hostile atmosphere created to wind him up. Rafael Benitez’s infamous rant at the Chelsea fans and Roman Abramovich at the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday night could have been unintentional, but nevertheless turned out to be an intelligent move by the manager to unite the club’s supporters in fully backing the team and indirectly making himself the scapegoat.

Banners such as “Rafa Benítez, not wanted, never wanted” showed the extremely blunt, matter-of-fact-aggression directed towards the former Liverpool manager. The crowd sang a variety of songs, the most audible being “Stand up if you hate Rafa”. The opposing manager Steve Clark, also a long-serving Chelsea player and former assistant to Jose Mourinho, got a better reception than Rafa from the Stamford Bridge faithful. Towards the end of the game, just before West Brom began their final attempt to salvage something from the match, the Chelsea fans could be assured that the boos and toxic chants were going kaput, almost to ‘deaf Rafa’ ears. He ignored everything with all his strength and instead concentrated on meticulously scribbling in his notepad.

After the routine FA Cup win over Middlesbrough, Benitez begged the fans to stop wasting time preparing banners against him and instead back the players – “The fans have to support the team and the players and we will do our jobs. If we cannot achieve what we expect to achieve, that is to be in the top four and be in the Champions League for next year, I will leave; they will stay in the Europa League. They don’t realise that this is a team in transition. We have really good players with talent but it is a time of transition. I am trying to do my best and I will do my best until the end, the last minute,” he said.

What do we learn from this? The man is definitely frustrated with the group of fans who refuse to accept and forgive him for what happened years ago. He knows deep down that he will be elsewhere next season and even if Chelsea FC were to be the only football club left on the planet, he would not take the job after completing his 6 month tenure. So the fans can be assured that he will vacate the manager’s post and he himself knows he will leave; then what is the fuss all about? Why can’t the fans neglect Rafa’s temporary existence and instead concentrate on pushing the team forward?

The only logical explanation is that the supporters are using the former Champions League winning manager as a punching bag to vent out their frustration after a disastrous European campaign and an inconsistent, underperforming run in the league. Rafael Benitez has had a tempestuous tenure so far, fighting off the conflicting emotions between him and the fans.

In the 21 games under Roberto Di Matteo this season, Chelsea scored an aggregate of 48 goals and conceded 33. There was no clean sheet in the last 10 games under the Italian. The surprising statistic here is that in Benitez’s first 21 games at Chelsea, exactly 48 goals were scored but only 23 conceded. While the ‘three amigos’ had immediately gelled and made Chelsea into an uber-attacking side, the defensive duties were being ignored and the opponents were slowly finding pockets of space to work in and break down Chelsea. Manchester United’s 3-2 win at the Bridge showcased how delicate the Blues were while defending the counter-attacks and crosses.

FBL-ENG-PR-CHELSEA-WEST BROM

The Spaniard organized the defensive mayhem at the club and broke up the famous trio of Oscar, Hazard and Mata, opting to start with all three together only on 7 occasions. The talents of Victor Moses and César Azpilicueta blossomed under the new manager. The talk of David Luiz playing in the anchor midfield role was only a media fantasy until Benitez came. Right from the days of Carlo Ancelotti, the Brazilian had been tipped by many as a prospective defensive midfielder with wonderful creative qualities. No former Chelsea manager was as brave as Rafael Benitez to risk the Brazilian in that ‘unorthodox position’. David Luiz was man-of-the-match against Monterray in the FIFA Club World Cup, playing for the first time in the new role assigned to him. And ever since that game, the Spaniard has used Luiz in that role on numerous occasions.

The satisfaction of winning a Premier League game 1-0 is as sweet as sipping a California quencher, with marmalade and grapes! Against West Brom, Rafa instructed the side to be direct with their play, using a maximum of 4-5 passes in each attack and trying to penetrate as fast as possible. There were a total of 24 shots taken on goal. The defensive transition was good, with 19 interceptions. Although Oscar had a million shots on goal, it was the heroic goalkeeping of Ben Foster that saved the Baggies’ blushes. The characteristic feature under Benitez is that chances are being created, something which seemed too much to ask for under AVB.

The man is being professional and doing his best. He is absolutely spot on when he says that it is better for the club if the supporters get behind the players rather than waste time trying to wind him up. He has 10 Premier League games left. If Rafa manages to grab 25 points out of a possible 30 and qualify comfortably for next season’s Champions League, he can consider himself a top quality manager, no matter what the Chelsea fans think. He could never learn the art of “interim management” like Guus Hiddink or Di Matteo, but he must strive to achieve that coveted Champions League spot.

One thing is for sure – the Chelsea fans’ rebellion against Rafa Benitez is as meaningless as the Indian barber community protesting the film ‘Billu (Barber)’.

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