Torres form vital for Benitez at Chelsea
LONDON (AP) -Rafael Benitez's surprise appointment as interim Chelsea manager will be seen by many as a short-term fix ahead of the likely hiring of Pep Guardiola next summer.
However, if Benitez is able to get the best out of struggling striker Fernando Torres - like he did in the pair's fruitful days at Liverpool - the 52-year-old Spaniard could find himself around for longer than just this season.
Out of management since being fired by Inter Milan in December 2010, Benitez begins life Thursday as Chelsea's ninth coach under ruthless Russian owner Roman Abramovich with a lengthy to-do list awaiting him. Indeed, one of his first tasks will be handling the fallout of the racism case involving referee Mark Clattenburg, with the Football Association close to making a decision whether to charge the official with abusing a Chelsea player during a match.
What could define Benitez's tenure at Stamford Bridge, though, is his handling of Torres - the 50 million pound ($81 million) gift bestowed on the club by Abramovich in January 2011. Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Villas-Boas couldn't find a way of accommodating the Spain international and Roberto Di Matteo's axing of the player for Tuesday's 3-0 loss at Juventus in the Champions League proved to be one of the Italian's last acts as manager.
Benitez has already shown he has a better idea than most about how to squeeze the best displays out of Torres. Under Benitez at Liverpool, he scored 33 goals in 46 matches in his first, stellar season at Anfield. Over the next two seasons, Torres scored 41 times in 70 games.
It's no surprise, then, that Torres last year called Benitez "the most important coach in my career.''
If Benitez can make Torres tick once again, particularly with playmakers like Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar feeding the striker, Chelsea could yet become the feared attacking unit so craved by Abramovich.
"The owner and the board believe that in Benitez, we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives,'' Chelsea said in a statement presenting Benitez as the new manager until the end of the season.
As the only true striker in Chelsea's squad following the departure of Didier Drogba last summer, Torres is integral to the team's success this season. He has proved to be a shadow of his old self since making the big-money move to west London, lacking confidence in front of goal and with his own technique, yet managers have felt compelled to persist with Torres because of Abramovich's vast outlay on him.
So far this season, Torres has scored seven goals in 19 games and more is expected of him.
Some in the British media are suggesting Di Matteo paid the price for not implementing a distinctive attacking philosophy after guiding Chelsea to a first Champions League title in May.
Benitez isn't known for being the most attack-minded of managers, however. In his first title-winning season at Valencia, in 2001-02, his team scored just 51 goals scored in 38 games. Similarly, his Liverpool teams were better known for their organization more than their flair.
As many managers have discovered down the years at Chelsea, Abramovich wants both trophies and quality football. That explains why Guardiola, the former Barcelona coach, is widely viewed as his No. 1 choice.
Not even winning the Champions League, supposedly the holy grail for Abramovich, was enough to keep Di Matteo on board.
"I am extremely proud of the successes and trophies that we were able to bring to the club in recent months,'' said Di Matteo, who also won the FA Cup last season during his spell as interim coach before being taken on full-time in June.
"Lifting Chelsea's first Champions League trophy, in Munich, was the best achievement in club history and without doubt the highlight of my career to date, both as a player and manager. It is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life.''
As well as coaxing the best out of Torres, Benitez will need to sort out a back four that looks unsteady without the calming influence of the injured John Terry and must also decide how long to persist with the 34-year-old Frank Lampard in midfield.
Chelsea's situation in the Premier League, and even in the Champions League, isn't so gloomy, though.
In the league, the team is third, just four points off leader Manchester City - Benitez's first opponent Sunday. And in Europe, Chelsea can still advance if it beats FC Nordsjaelland and Juventus loses to Shakhtar Donetsk, not an improbable scenario.
If Torres can regain his form under his old mentor, Chelsea could yet play a central role in both competitions and give Benitez a chance of staying on beyond next summer.