Chelsea's turmoil takes another turn with Benitez's rant
The assumption, when Rafa Benitez started laying into fans and criticizing the board in a post-match radio interview Wednesday, was that he had lost it, that this was his Kevin Keegan "I would love it!" moment. And then he came in to address the written media and said exactly the same thing, almost word for word. The answer to the first question was 394 words long.
Make no mistake: this wasn't a beleaguered manager suddenly snapping, although the cheeriness of that first press conference 13 weeks ago has slowly become weariness. What Benitez said after his team had beaten Middlesbrough 2-0 was calculated and pre-planned.
That raises all sorts of questions about motive, but let's start with the words themselves.
"This group of fans are not doing any favors to the team, while they are wasting time singing and preparing banners," Benitez said. "They have to concentrate on supporting the team. Every game they continue singing and preparing banners they are wasting time. They have to take responsibility. They need to support the team. They have to realize they are making a big mistake because the rest of the fans would like to see the team in the Champions League next year. They are not the majority, but if that group of fans continue with their agenda, they are not supporting the team."
There is, of course, great irony to this given the reason Chelsea fans hate Benitez -- in so much as there is a reason -- is that in 2005, while manager of Liverpool, he made a dismissive comment about the plastic flags they wave at European games, which supposedly revealed his contempt for the club. At Liverpool, he implied then, there was real atmosphere as fans brought their own flags and banners. So if nothing else, Benitez has at least encouraged Chelsea fans in banner-making, even if they were mainly using the craft to attack him, and even if he doesn't now seem so keen on the idea.
"I am professional," he went on. "I want to win every game, but I will pick my team and make my decisions. I have been in charge of teams for 26 years and I've won trophies in three countries. 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 realize 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. They can blame me for everything that goes wrong, but if we get into the Champions League I will be the happiest man in the world, but I will leave because my contract ends.
"This minority are damaging the image of the club and that of the rest of the fans. Most people think Chelsea fans are all the same, they aren't -- the majority are splendid. I understand the reasons [of the minority]. I was the Liverpool manager, and we played Chelsea in some massive Champions League games, but I want to clarify that I'm doing my best, and if they carry on this agenda they are damaging the team and the club."
No manager under Roman Abramovich has won fewer of his first 27 games than Benitez -- although just how useful that is as a metric is perhaps called into doubt by the fact that Avram Grant stands top of the list. And this is a squad in the process of being overhauled -- a process Andre Villas-Boas, whose Tottenham side now stands above Chelsea in the league table, was brought in to oversee. Perhaps brilliant results and brilliant football would have won enough of the fans who are against him round, but given the squad, given the circumstances, given Benitez and his preference for long-term planning and occasionally staid football, that was never likely.
But Benitez and the fans is one thing -- everybody seems to have underestimated their antipathy to him, at least until the outburst of booing that greeted his first appearance on the touchline for that game against Manchester City; Benitez and the board is something else.
"It's because someone made a mistake," he said. "They put my title [as] interim manager, and I will leave at the end of the season, so they don't need to waste time with me. Someone decided it, but it was a mistake. I am the manager. Look what I've done in 26 years. I have won the Champions League, the FIFA [Club] World Cup, the FA Cup, the Italian Super Cup, the Spanish League twice, nine trophies, all the trophies you can win at club level."
Asked for clarification as to whether he agreed to the "interim" part of his job title, Benitez was categorical: he had not. Perhaps he overstates the effect of that in encouraging his opponents, but it can hardly be doubted that it undermined him. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, after he announced his retirement -- later abandoned -- in 2001, found players less responsive. Why would a powerful core of players used to getting their own way ever listen to a manager they know is a lame duck?
The issue is also indicative of the generally dismissive attitude at Chelsea to managers -- although the list of candidates is running short, given that of the seven managers who have won the Champions League in the past 10 years, four have already managed Chelsea, Sir Alex Ferguson is never going to leave Manchester United for anything other than retirement and Pep Guardiola is about to take up a new role at Bayern Munich. Which leaves Frank Rijkaard, last seen parting ways with Saudi Arabia after a poor showing in World Cup qualifying.
Presumably Benitez thought he could overcome that -- or perhaps from the start he recognized this as a no-lose way of getting back into football that came with a hefty paycheck. Certainly Wednesday's comments felt like a manager with nothing to lose, effectively saying to his bosses, "OK, sack me now, see if I care." Whether it's significant it came after reports of two separate bustups with senior players -- both denied, although with rather less vigor the second time -- is impossible to say, but Benitez wouldn't be the first Chelsea manager to find the opposition of players intractable. The likelihood is he will go sooner rather than later, but what Wednesday's outburst ensured is that come May at the latest, Chelsea will be seeking yet another new manager, the 10th of Abramovich's 10-year reign.
Chelsea has become such a basket case that nobody can be blamed for failing there. And that, really, is the biggest problem. Perhaps there was good reason not to appoint Roberto Di Matteo -- after all, although he won the Champions League, he actually failed in his appointed task, which was to get Chelsea into the top four -- but having appointed him to dismiss him when they did was baffling, and to appoint Benitez, a manager not merely unpopular with fans but also whose ethos seemed so different to that of Di Matteo was only going to cause further upheaval. That results have suffered since is hardly a surprise.
The difficulty now is that the culture of soap opera is so ingrained it's hard to see how it will ever end, or at least not under Abramovich's leadership.