Benitez gaining grudging respect at Chelsea
Chants of “Jose Mourinho” rang around all four sides of Stamford Bridge. Fans sang loud and proud about club stalwarts Frank Lampard and John Terry, too.
Still nothing, though, for the man who has defied debilitating circumstances to guide Chelsea to a second straight European final as well as the brink of a return to the Champions League.
Rafa Benitez knows full well he’ll never be accepted by Chelsea supporters following his past comments about the club during his time as Liverpool manager, but it’s hard not to notice the grudging respect toward the Spaniard as his short-term reign approaches its end.
Once greeted with boos and jeers as he emerged from the tunnel before matches, now there is just a stony silence that will still be music to the ears of Benitez. Fans on website forums and radio phone-ins are even starting to credit the job he is doing, justifiably so.
Considering the team’s crazy fixture schedule — it’s 64 matches and counting this season — and the hostility he’s had to cope with since joining as interim manager in November, Benitez will leave Chelsea this summer with his reputation enhanced and possibly another trophy on his impressive CV.
“With all the circumstances that were around at the beginning — the situation with the squad, being without (January signing) Demba Ba, a team in transition — we’ve done a good job,” Benitez said on Thursday after Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Basel that set up a Europa League final against Benfica on May 15.
“We were professional trying to improve things without much time, because we’ve been playing twice a week, and we did well. Hopefully we can finish even better.”
His famous outburst after an FA Cup win at Middlesbrough in February could go down as a turning point in Chelsea’s season. Benitez stated in a feisty post-match news conference that he would definitely be leaving the club at the end of his interim stay, before criticizing fans for not getting behind him and the club’s hierarchy for giving him the “interim” tag.
There have been few murmurs since, helped by the fact that Chelsea has lost only four of its 16 matches in the past two months — two of those defeats coming in away legs in the Europa League. Chelsea has won all eight of its home games in that period.
Chelsea was unbeaten in its four Premier League games, earning Benitez the manager of the month award for April, the first time a Chelsea boss has won the accolade since Carlo Ancelotti in 2011.
“I think what’s key is that the fans have settled down a bit,” Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, a long-time foe of Benitez’s, said on Friday. “They have left him alone and he’s gone on doing his job, because it can’t be easy listening to criticism from fans all the time.”
“They’ve eased off on him,” added Ferguson, who will renew his touchline rivalry with the Spaniard in a Premier League game on Sunday, “and it’s allowed him to relax himself. He has produced some good results and he has picked the right teams in the right games. He has rested and brought in certain players. It’s been a good period for him.”
Faced with a game every three or four days since the start of February, Benitez has to be given credit for the way he has rotated his squad to deal with the demands of a punishing, unprecedented schedule.
Terry and Lampard, fans’ favorites in southwest London, have had to be content with playing every other week, often in the less important games. That policy did not work for former manager Andre Villas-Boas but Benitez has emerged the better for it.
Playing David Luiz — a central defender — as a center midfielder at times has been a masterstroke while playmakers Juan Mata and Eden Hazard look to have been given the right amount of game time to keep them in good shape for the final month of the season.
“I was helping the team,” Benitez said. “As a manager you have to do your job.”
For a person who’s never shy of talking up his own achievements as a coach — Champions League and UEFA Cup titles, a Spanish league championship, a Club World Cup — Benitez will be desperate to finish his time at Chelsea with the Europa League won and a top-four place in the Premier League secured. Chelsea is third with four games left.
“He is very concerned about his CV. He refers to it quite a lot,” Ferguson said mockingly, before adding: “But you can’t dispute the fact he has done a good job.”
After his recent comments, Mourinho is the man most likely to succeed Benitez this summer although the manner of the Portuguese coach’s departure from Stamford Bridge in 2007 must still rankle with owner Roman Abramovich.
“I have not made any decision about whether I will stay or go,” Mourinho said on Friday about his future at Real Madrid.
The hard-to-please Abramovich could do worse than stick with Benitez.