RAFAEL BENITEZ has plenty to do if he is to win over a disgruntled section of the Chelsea support and not a lot of time in which to do it.
Even before the Spaniard had taken his seat for his introductory press conference as manager, the hostility to his appointment had become widespread. One fan traipsed out to the club's training ground in Cobham with a banner that read "Benitez Out", while plenty others took to the internet to register their disgust. It is not an entirely new phenomenon. When Andre Villas-Boas was sacked by Chelsea last March, a banner appeared at the next home game as a warning to the club's hierarchy: No Benitez at the Bridge. Football fans have long memories.
This is resentment that has been festering for almost eight years, a legacy of Benitez's time at Liverpool when he and Jose Mourinho, then Chelsea manager, would often cross swords. The clubs were competing for supremacy, both in Europe and domestically, and Benitez seemed to get under the Chelsea fans' skins in the way Mourinho did with, well, just about everyone else. When Benitez made a barbed comment about the artificial atmosphere at Chelsea's European games – "we do not need to give away flags for our fans to wave" – they used it as a motivational quote on the walls of the Liverpool training ground.
Loading article content
That is one reason for the opposition to his appointment. The other, more rational, argument is to question the logic in removing Roberto Di Matteo, a Champions League winner just six months earlier, then giving another manager until the end of the season to somehow take things forward. Benitez cannot control whether Chelsea progress from the group phase of the Champions League – they need to hope Shakhtar Donetsk win against Juventus while they beat Nordsjaelland at home – and the short-term nature of the contract does not give him a platform from which to plan a radical overhaul of the squad. If he is only keeping the seat warm until Pep Guardiola is appointed in the summer – as seems to be the case – then it is hard to see why Di Matteo, who left with Chelsea just four points adrift of the top of the Barclays Premier League, could not have been entrusted to do the same.
Chelsea fans may also be entitled to ask why Benitez? Why now? The Spaniard has been out of work since being sacked from a short but disastrous stint in charge of Internazionale. Those close to him insist he has had offers in the subsequent two years and turned them down, but the haste with which he accepted Chelsea's invitation did not suggest a man happy to drift off into early retirement. He now has six months to make a decent pitch to be considered for the job on a permanent basis – as Di Matteo did, even if it ended up being rather less permanent than he would have liked – or at the very least remind other chairmen and owners that he is a talented manager who deserves a chance somewhere. Presumably you do not reach two Champions League Finals, win the UEFA Cup and lift two La Liga titles if you do not have something about you.
Unlike many new managers, he is not being pitched into a fire-fighting situation. Granted, he can do little about prolonging the club's defence of the Champions League beyond overseeing a victory over Nordsjaelland, while he has a squad talented enough to make a decent tilt at the league title.
Contractual issues will likely not be his domain, although the fact both Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole will be free agents in the summer may influence any business he hopes to do in January. Lampard will be 35 in June and may be allowed to see out his deal before heading abroad for one last payday, but it is hard to see Abramovich being minded to do the same with Cole, still one of the best full-backs in the world and only 31. It will be interesting to see whether a proposed move for Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao still goes ahead with a new manager in charge, especially given Benitez's strong relationship with Fernando Torres, the player Falcao would likely be replacing.
Abramovich is thought to want a manager who not only wins but does so in style. It is hard to see how Benitez fits into that grand plan. On Merseyside he remains a divisive figure, criticised for being overly cautious, as someone who rotated his squad too often, and who was over-reliant on the goals and creativity of Steven Gerrard and Torres.
Then there are those who believe he made astute signings, got the best out of Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, and who possessed the shrewdest tactical brain seen at Anfield since the days of Bill Shankly. Liverpool have not won the title since 1990, and although Benitez couldn't deliver that, his second-placed finish in 2009 was as close as they have subsequently come.
He was a manager who wanted to construct winning sides while gaining the trust of those around him. At Chelsea he has been brought in as a quick fix. It is not the sort of scenario he would have wished for but he will give it his best shot regardless. If it goes well he may even win over a few fans, too.