Rafa Benitez seems confident that he can win over the Chelsea faithful as he begins his glorified caretakers role at the club. If I were him I’d not be so certain. Chelsea fans are never likely to accept someone who has made dismissive comments about the club and its greatest manager, back when his Liverpool had something of an unofficial rivalry. It becomes even more impossible when his appointment comes off the back of the most ludicrous sacking in the club’s history, if not the history of the Premier League.
Even with his Liverpool ties he has few friends in the media. This is mostly because he made the cardinal sin of challenging the Sir Alex Ferguson stranglehold on the Premier League and laid bare the hypocrisy that the FA actively promotes when it comes to meting out managerial punishments. It was factually based but the fact he chose to fight that battle, and indeed the time he chose to fight it, the papers were safe to label him “mad”. He’d lost it they said, another victim of Ferguson’s incredible psychological warfare.
This made him a joke. Suddenly he was no longer a successful continental manager. He was a fat Spanish waiter, the perfect target for the xenophobia inherent to the tabloids. To balance out the constant mockery, they insisted that it was somehow sad to see a “great manager” in such a decline. They would have done much better applauding him on his bold stance and pointing out what anyone who knows anything about football should know – that Benitez is a fine coach but a dreadful manager.
Liverpool fans know this deep down inside. They are unique in how obstinate they are when it comes to supporting failing managers. They don’t like to be perceived as “turning on their own”. It is rightly ingrained in a club that was shockingly and falsely demonised by the press time and time again. It created a trench mentality necessary for survival in such an environment – you are either with us, or against us, but if you’re with us you’re with all of us. There has never been a more appropriate club motto than “You never walk alone”.
But inside they knew. They knew that Benitez the coach, with the side he inherited, had worked wonders. Benitez the manager slowly dismantled that team and with each bit of tinkering he made it worse. This was the manager who saw the sublime talents of Xabi Alonso as little more than a makeweight to try and fund the purchase of the far less capable Gareth Barry. In his constant crowing about the necessity of this deal he made Alonso, who had always felt at home at Liverpool, want to leave and resent his treatment.
So grim had the situation got as the signings dragged the quality down he effectively created a team that could only win if it included their two star players – Gerrard and Torres. The papers have made much about how Benitez will get the best out of Torres, as he had in the past. Those writers need to remember their history.
Torres was already a gem when he arrived at Liverpool, masterful on the ball, with a turn of pace and an eye for goal. Torres was all about the right kind of runs, beating a player not with trickery but with knowing the right angle of attack to burst through. He arguably did it better than anyone else in the Spanish league and it was a talent that served him well in the English game too with all those lumbering, slow defenders.
But it was a physically demanding ability to utilise constantly and the inevitable injuries came. What became clear was that when Liverpool didn’t have Torres they struggled to win. So, even when he required a surgery Benitez pressured him to delay it. With each game it got slightly worse but there was enough of the old Torres to push Liverpool to victories. Of course, the damage that it did to the player was becoming increasingly clear. Benitez didn’t care about that though – players are assets, not people, and the team needed him.
Gerrard had to do the same as well, playing through injuries to try and raise the level of a team Benitez had single-handedly run down. When you look at both players now you have to say that he must haunt them in their nightmares. Gerrard blunders his way around the Liverpool pitch looking fit for the knackers yard at 33, Rodgers lacking the fortitude to drop him from a team he shouldn’t get in to on current form. Torres is unlikely to welcome the return of the man who has made him a shadow of himself at a time when players should be at their peak and made him a bit part player in a Spanish line-up with only one truly great striker.
No, hard to imagine that relationship working, especially with Benitez’s ill-advised comments about how Torres has indeed already peaked, a statement delivered at a time when most managers would happily lie and say the best was yet to come. It is classic Rafa, the man management skills of a mortician.
Those who laud his abilities as a manager say you only have to look to what he achieved with Valencia, how he won La Liga and challenged the Barca / Real hegemony. What people rarely ad is that at that time the owners never let him loose on anything as complex as signing players. The had others oversee the transfers and Benitez was there to make sure they knew the system. He was a figurehead, a fall guy when they lost, a genius when they won, more CEO than manager. As soon as he demanded to make the signings so he could build his own team, the board were rightly worried. The public spat over him wanting autonomy saw him leave the club.
Much similar to Chelsea, he took over at Inter Milan when they had won the Champions League. That was a team in transition, aging stars take on one last hurrah by his old rival Mourinho. There would be sme rebuilding required but there was enough of a team there to challenge for honours once more. Of course, to go from the charismatic Portuguese to the clinical Spaniard was a brutal culture shock. He ostracised big names, immediately lost the dressing room and tried to implement his own system of play not because it was required but because he wanted to stamp out as much residual remains of “the special one” as he could.
Naturally the failure was spectacular, the champions of Europe struggling to achieve a mid-table placement, and he was given the golden handshake he clearly raved with his increasingly bizarre and cryptic press conferences. Happy to play up to his reputation, he was now “mad” in two countries, not just one.
Despite a glut of high profile appointments between now and then Benitez was rarely in the frame. Even with his record the baggage that comes with him is not desirable to a club. That, and more often than not, there are simply better candidates.
He will talk a good game to begin with. He’ll bemoan refereeing decisions first time it is pertinent and talk at length about positives that only exist in his own mind. Chelsea won’t challenge for the title this season though. Benitez teams have a history of wilting under the pressure, much like the man himself. He will guide them to an expected Champions League spot, something he will claim is an achievement for the club, before being let go with another golden handshake as Abramovich goes back to pursuing Guardiola. So it is written, so it shall be.
What every Chelsea fan must really worry about is if he is allowed to “stamp his authority” on the team and is given access to the golden chequebook. He’s already talking about offloading Ashley Cole, aging but still regarded bymany as the best left back in the world. Talismans like Lampard have also been talked about as being surplus to requirements. Who knows who’s next? Stalin’s cabinet probably felt more secure than that Chelsea squad right now.
Even talking about transfers two matches into what is clearly a temporary tenure is absurd. This is the norm however in a career where the manager, not the coach, has constantly been the architect of his own, fiscally rewarded, downfall. Benitez isn’t mad. He’s just not very good.