Home »  Sport

Rafa Benitez: Right man, wrong job

Friday, 23 November 2012 - 3:49pm IST Updated: Friday, 23 November 2012 - 3:53pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
New Chelsea manager's formidable ego will be fully tested in quest to fulfil owner's absurd demands.
  • Getty Images

With a personal website that looks more like a shrine than an information outlet, Rafael Benitez is not low on self-esteem. Roman Abramovich's empire has admitted a coach with a sense of destiny rather than a caretaker who will tug his forelock until a better man steps in.

Whatever Chelsea say, Benitez will try to render himself unsackable, as Roberto Di Matteo was for a few weeks after the club's first Champions League triumph, in May. Several managers have tried to tame the bucking bronco of Abramovich's power and each has ended up on the floor. Few, though, will have carried such a strong self-image into the house of intrigue that is Stamford Bridge.

To bring Chelsea fans to the gates of the Cobham training complex with anti-Benitez banners on day one is quite a feat, even for Abramovich. The "interim" manager is caught in a swirl of mistrust from his Liverpool days, when he made a few disparaging remarks about manufacturing history with "flags", and wider suspicion that he was hired specifically as a nursemaid to Fernando Torres, with whom many Chelsea supporters have now lost patience.

To arrive at this juncture Abramovich sacked a club legend who provided a link to the Olde Ken Bates Chelsea and who went about his difficult task with dignity. Di Matteo's final act was to drop Abramovich's corporate pet, Torres, in Turin on Tuesday. This expression of independence and defiance hastened Di Matteo's exit and opened the gates to a manager who will have to calculate how much he can afford to stand up to Petr Cech, Ashley Cole and John Terry.

Benitez is an operator but he is no sycophant. Just ask Steven Gerrard, who waited years for his first "well done" at Anfield, where a hard core of loyalists will defend the Benitez record to the last rampart. They point to the magnificent comeback win in Istanbul in 2005 and the fine team built around Gerrard, Torres, Xabi Alonso and Pepe Reina.

For the most part, though, Benitez's Liverpool teams were products of chalkboard calculation. His natural hunting ground was Europe, where he understood how to thwart more creative opposition and win tight games. This took Liverpool to two Champions League finals. But Benitez is no gambler or entertainer. He seeks to prevail through superior analysis and intelligence. The clue is in his touchline demeanour: scientific and aloof.

Against that backdrop Abramovich might be hoping for a miraculous escape in Chelsea's Champions League group, a sharp rise in Torres's productivity and a steady ship until Pep Guardiola or AN Other can be persuaded to continue the work started by Andre Villas-Boas.

Here we see the owner's confusion. Again. Chelsea's reinvention was swinging along quite nicely, with Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard changing the team's raison d'etre. Now, Abramovich has inserted a manager whose chief priority will be not losing, whose first and last thought each day will be surviving beyond the six months Chelsea have almost certainly hired him for.

With that personal imperative, Benitez will have to work out how he handles the expectations from above, Torres, the Mark Clattenburg fallout, and the style and shape of the team, which have improved since Villas-Boas tried to alter too much too quickly - and ran into resistance from the old guard. In fairness any caretaker would have faced these difficulties. But Benitez brings a distinctive kind of ego to the role and will not find it easy to second-guess his oligarchical boss or seek only to give him what he wants. The one thing he can be sure of is that there is no proven survival manual.

Jose Mourinho was the best manager in Chelsea's history, but was sacked. Carlo Ancelotti won a League and FA Cup double but took a bullet 12 months later.

If ingratiating himself is contrary to his nature, nor can Benitez be sure he will still be Chelsea manager next August even if he wins the Premier League. Plus: does he stick with Di Matteo's system or revert to a more cautious style? If he does that, how will it go down with Mata, Oscar, Hazard and Abramovich? Also, Benitez would need to have a character transplant to start sucking up to Terry, the kind of barrack room sergeant the new manager never tolerated at Liverpool.

All these issues will engage our thoughts when Manchester City come to town on Sunday. By then Benitez will feel he is fully back from the wilderness of being placed in the frame for jobs at Aston Villa and elsewhere and being restricted instead to the role of wandering tactical academic.

One thing in his favour is a rhino skin. He is a strong man in a thoroughly weak position.

 


Jump to comments

RELATED