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Rafa Benitez set not to fulfil doomed marriage of convenience

Thursday, 6 December 2012 - 9:35pm IST Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2012 - 9:36pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Benitez resigned never to fulfil his doomed marriage of convenience. Caretaker manager may as well be writing grocery list during this hollow victory.
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Rafa Benitez made a breakthrough here. Four minutes in, he shouted to Ashley Cole and Cole actually responded, abandoning his previous habit of not registering his manager's yelling and jogging over to the touchline to take instructions.

Chelsea's interim, caretaker, stand-in, clinging-on manager made the most of it, squeezing the back of his left-back's neck like a proud father. A pat on the shoulder sent Cole back out again and Benitez fiddled with his notebook before returning to his favourite technical area stance: legs apart, hands cupped in pulling motions to drag the team over to his side of the pitch.

Dressed for a board meeting, in smart dark suit, Benitez is not a passive coach. Roman Abramovich pulls his strings and Benitez pulls the team's, as much as he dares. The nightwatchman had won none of his first three games before this deluge against Champions League also-rans restored a bit of confidence.

Flanked by Paco Di Miguel, his fitness expert, and Steve Holland, the assistant first-team coach, Benitez dominates a bench that lacks the drama of past regimes. Under Jose Mourinho, for instance, the technical area sometimes resembled a riot in the Kings Road branch of Hugo Boss. Andre Villas-Boas prowled and crouched like an army scout.

In the current line-up, only the goalkeeping coach, Christophe Lollichon, can be relied on to erupt, as he did on half an hour when Cole was bowled over en route to goal. Benitez also went potty, but it was only a brief deviation from a generally more passive approach.

Bolo Zenden, one of his few backroom appointments, lacks the coaching qualifications to join him on the front row of the bench.

By nature Benitez is all authoritarian detachment, dragging motions and barks, though here against Nordsjaelland his shouting was more tentative than we remember from his Anfield days. In those first three games he seemed intent on a kind of diplomatic scorched earth, letting slip that Frank Lampard and Cole would be leaving in the summer, and jabbing his finger at his team, against Manchester City and Fulham.

The hostility that shook this ground on the day he took over from Roberto Di Matteo has faded into listlessness. Benitez was jeered again in this final group game but there was no enthusiasm for it. Booing Abramovich's latest clean-up artist is already a Stamford Bridge ritual, like buying a programme or trying to catch the TV camera's eye with a banner demanding the return of Mourinho or sticking up for Di Matteo.

After a comical exchange of missed penalties David Luiz put Chelsea ahead from the spot with one of his wonderfully long run-ups and Fernando Torres doubled their lead in first-half added time. That is not a typing error.

Counter-intuitively, Torres seemed disinclined to celebrate his first goal under Benitez, as if to do so might draw attention to how long he had to wait. On 56 minutes Torres scored again, with his shin, so Benitez has already ticked one box on his contract. It was hardly a shock to see the former Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan coach a bit subdued, even with a 6-1 lead. By now his fate would be settled in another oligarch's palace, in Donetsk, where Shakhtar fell a goal behind to Juventus to hush the Chelsea crowd even more.

Instinct says there was more to Benitez's mood than geographical powerlessness. However tough he is, he could hardly block out a fortnight of hostility, derision and relentless media questioning. Beyond those external challenges, he will have picked up the sense that all he is meant to do is keep things ticking over until someone more glamorous comes in, not rewrite the job descriptions of Juan Mata or the excellent Eden Hazard, who made a succession of penetrating bursts, without quite offering convincing evidence of his ability to cross with his left-foot. Twice he switched to the outside of his right boot to clip the ball into the box from the left.

Ordinarily, Benitez would be jotting War and Peace in his notebook. He would record every nuance, every training ground requirement. But he might as well write his grocery list. He must see by now that winning over this dressing room while simultaneously persuading Abramovich to drop his pursuit of bigger names is a quest not even the heroes of Greek mythology would attempt.

A softly-softly approach is his best hope. Even without John Terry and Lampard, this Chelsea side will not be bullied. They are in the habit of outliving managers: especially ones reviled by the crowd. Coercion, from Benitez's perspective, is hopeless. All he can hope to do is persuade these players that he knows what they need; knows not to complicate and obstruct their efforts.

To instil fear is way outside his range, but he may yet make it as far as respect. Then again his world already churns with references to The Damned United and Brian Clough's disastrous 44-day reign at Leeds. That was a doomed marriage. This is no more than an extended date.

Benitez's religion has been control: a good one for a manager. But he is in the wrong church for that, so he might as well relax and help the players do what they were doing before he arrived, with a tightening up at the back.

Anything else is futile, as his demeanour seemed to acknowledge.

 


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