As a Liverpool fan, I have been asked several times over the last couple of days “How do you feel about Rafael Benítez joining Chelsea?” It’s a good question…
My initial reaction was one of antipathy. I still try and kid myself that football operates on a different level to real life. I’d like to believe that once a player or manager has a synonymous association with a club, it would be unthinkable for them to join a major rival. However, football is no different to life in general. People move on.
When Benítez left Liverpool by mutual consent in June 2010, he departed with dignity and the respect of the fans who had grown to love him during his largely successful six year reign. Not least for his final act before departing to Internazionale. He personally delivered a cheque for £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group. It was a touch of class from a very genuine man.
Two years on, seeing Benítez at Chelsea is difficult to swallow. It just doesn’t look right. Whilst the appointment will take some getting used to for Liverpool supporters, the real challenge for Benítez is to win over his new faithful. The majority of media coverage I have witnessed over the last two days seems to suggest that Chelsea fans are in agreement with their Liverpudlian counterparts. They appear far from happy with the appointment. Benítez’s trophy winning credentials seem to count for nothing. It’s proving difficult for the blues fans to look beyond the fact Benítez was their arch enemy. During his reign as reds chief, Benítez’s Liverpool faced Chelsea a staggering 26 times (winning 7, losing 12 and drawing 7). There was a dark sub-plot to many of these encounters, fueled in the main by a prickly relationship between José Mourinho and Benítez. During this time, Rafa’s name was taken in vain in many a Chelsea chant. Particular favourites cast him as an overweight Spanish waiter and ‘the bloke off the Go Compare adverts’!
In terms of their general feeling, I can totally understand where the Chelsea fans are coming from. Putting myself in their shoes, I would probably feel the same if Liverpool appointed the self professed ‘special one’. However in the interests of their club, the sooner they get beyond this stage of resistance the better. I truly believe Chelsea are a more dangerous outfit with Benítez in charge. He will take what is an already accomplished side and add an extra layer of solidity and tactical nous. Expect to see ‘Zonal Marking’ and ‘Squad Rotation’ trending on pundit’s cue cards in the coming weeks!
Much has been said about Benítez’s arrival being the catalyst for Fernando Torres’ long overdue renaissance. I believe his arrival will help but not necessarily for the technical and tactical reasons I have read elsewhere. I believe it is more of a personal issue. Torres trusts Rafa and more importantly, Torres knows that Rafa trusts him. He feels comfortable and at home with Rafa and this will enable him to shed some of the psychological burden that he has exerted on himself since his transfer from Liverpool. If he scores against Manchester City on Sunday, I sense a rapid improvement in form will be just around the corner.
While both sets of fans try to come to terms with the appointment, the man himself seems to be taking it all in his stride. He appeared his usual confident and measured self at the unveiling press conference on Thursday. His motivation for taking the job, albeit on a short-term basis is clear. It gives him the opportunity to work in a league he obviously loves with a crop of very talented players who have a genuine chance of winning silverware this season. If Benítez thrives in his post at Chelsea, his CV will require another coat of gloss and the possibilities for his career will multiply.
His ambition and determination, whilst being amongst his greatest strengths, can also manifest themselves as his biggest weakness. Stubbornness. During his times in charge of Valencia, Liverpool and Internazionale, he had open disagreements with each club’s hierarchy. The core of these disagreements was control of the playing staff. Benítez wanted total football ownership including player transfers. He will not get this at Chelsea. If owner Roman Abramovich wants something (or someone), he bypasses the club structure and he buys it. (Fortunately for Benítez, I don’t think Roman is a fan of Robbie Keane!) This may not become an issue due to the temporary nature of the relationship but, with a January transfer window to negotiate, the Spaniards patience may be tested.
Whilst he has been installed as ‘Interim Manager’ ®, the true length of Benítez’ stay at Stamford Bridge will be determined by his success between now and the end of the season coupled with the ability of Chelsea’s hierarchy to lure Pep Guardiola away from his sabbatical. If Guardiola is willing to join Chelsea, Benítez would be disposed of regardless of achievement. He could in theory land the Premier League, the Champions League/Europa League (delete as appropriate), the FIFA Club World Cup, the FA Cup and the League Cup and still be looking for a new job come June.
To coin a footballing cliché, at the end of the day both Liverpool and Chelsea fans alike must accept the situation. Rafa’s reign was an important chapter in Liverpool’s past but for the next seven months he is Chelsea’s future, whether any of us like it or not. I for one am not entirely happy with it but life goes on.