Benitez faces biggest challenge of his career to win over Chelsea fans

The new man in the Stamford Bridge dugout will require all his deep reservoirs of self-belief to overturn the initial hostility of the Blues supporters
By Wayne Veysey at Stamford Bridge

It was during his Liverpool reign that Rafael Benitez so enraged the Chelsea supporters with his unfavourable comparisons between the two clubs.

But even at the height of the red-blue hostility, Benitez did not face such naked animosity from the Stamford Bridge masses as in the opening match of what his new employers have merely labelled an ‘interim’ reign.

"I am focused on the game, I don't listen to the crowd.

"I don't know if they say something or not. For me the main thing was the team and the performance from the team on the pitch.

"You could see my body language on the dug-out I was just controlling it, trying to give instructions to my players and that's it.

"When fans are singing for me or against me I don't care. I want to change the perception. How will I do it? By working hard, doing my best and winning games."
The spleen was vented most obviously when the ninth manager of the Roman Abramovich era was introduced shortly before kick-off and, then, at the 16-minute mark as the home fans chanted odes to Roberto Di Matteo, who wore the No.16 shirt here during his playing days.

But the opposition to Benitez was not limited to isolated outcries or small pockets of fans. It was comprehensive enough for press box regulars to muse whether a new manager of a British club had ever received such a malevolent welcome before.         

The honeymoon period lasted as long as it took for a suit-clad Benitez to stride purposefully from the tunnel on to the technical area at 3.57pm. Remarkably, it required the pitchside announcer passing on the sad news of former Chelsea manager Dave Sexton’s death to end the thunderous jeers, coupled with chants of ‘Only One Di Matteo’, that had greeted the new manager’s entrance.

The Spaniard is a man of rare self-belief. But even his thick skin must have been penetrated by the poison from all four stands.

The inevitable ‘Rafa out’ banner guaranteed the headline picture as Chelsea regulars lived up to their promise that they would not lay out the red carpet for the man who ruled Europe seven years before Di Matteo did the same on that famous Munich night six months ago.

The animosity towards Benitez is related not so much to his capabilities in moulding a team, but more to do with a personality that prompts almost unhealthy degrees of negativity from his detractors.

Most notably, that includes Jose Mourinho, who simultaneously remains a thinly-veiled critic of Benitez and a darling of the Bridge.

The majority of Chelsea fans – “around 70 to 80 per cent”, according to one Blue-supporting press box regular – will never accept the Spaniard due to the open contempt he displayed towards the club while he was at Anfield.

Asked how a manager can survive if the supporters do not want him, Roberto Mancini replied: “Win, win, win, win, win, win, win, win.”

Throughout a managerial career that is far more successful than Benitez’s critics would have you believe, he has always put more emphasis on results than flamboyance, however much Abramovich may crave fantasy football.

That his Stamford Bridge reign should begin with such a dreary draw might have led to an uncomfortable post-match inquest with the man who will sign off his pay-cheque.

But even an audience with a demanding oligarch could not have been more awkward than the 90 minutes spent on the touchline being insulted by both sets of fans.

There was a trace of humour in the City chants of ‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ but only bitterness from the home supporters.

Like a Test opening batsman blocking out all outside influences to build a wall of concentration  while at the crease, the touchline conductor claimed he was not paying attention to the bitterness from the crowd.

“My experience in England is that when the fans are singing, I don’t understand what they say,” he stonewalled. Pressed on the universal sound of jeers, the Spaniard said: “Okay, I understand booing”.

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Benitez agreed with Mancini that the best riposte to the voluble critics in the stands is to accumulate victories. “I want to change the perception. How? Working hard, winning games, doing my best. If we start winning they will come on board.”

In the driving rain of this damp squib of a clash that pitted the champions of  Europe against the champions of England, the negativity off the pitch seemed to affect events on it.

Chelsea’s lack of penetration and authority was reflected in only a single shot on target. Even taking into account the calibre of the opposition, this was thin gruel.

In the circumstances, it seemed only a minor achievement that new-look centre-back pair David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic were able to close out City’s star-studded attack. Nonetheless, it will be regarded as a foundation upon which to build by a manager who puts such store in organisation and defensive rigour.

Benitez has accepted an invitation from one of the most demanding masters in the game to restore his reputation.

However, the evidence of this bruising experience is that it will require a miracle on a par with winning a European Cup with Djimi Traore at left-back for Benitez to be appreciated by the Chelsea supporters.

As for being loved, forget it. Rafa faces the biggest challenge of his career to win them over.

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