By Liam Twomey
For most other Chelsea managers in history, a 5-1 victory over Leeds United at Elland Road would have evoked a wave of raw, primal joy only a Jose Mourinho-esque knee-slide along the turf could express. For Rafa Benitez, however, the prevailing emotion must have been relief.
Having returned from Japan a loser, the Spaniard knew only a comprehensive dismissal of the Blues’ historic rivals would prevent the atmosphere of intense antipathy which has plagued his fledgling reign at Stamford Bridge from once again sparking open mutiny.
The nightmare looked distinctly possible for 45 minutes, as a confident but casual Chelsea first-half display was undone by a single costly lapse in concentration. For the sake of Benitez’s short-term survival hopes, a stylish second-half turnaround was the minimum required.
At the final whistle, the Blues had comfortably booked their passage into the last four of the Capital One Cup, and the margin of their victory had exposed Leeds as the mere ghost of rivals. But there could be no time to gloat, for the tests keep coming in the form of a run of festive fixtures which may well decide the immediate futures of Benitez and his team.
Over the course of 11 days from December 23 to January 2, Chelsea face Aston Villa at home, Norwich and Everton away, and QPR at home. It is a series of matches which lacks any real star quality, but undoubtedly poses its own unique set of challenges.
The only teams to beat Aston Villa since mid-October are Manchester United and Manchester City. Should they avoid defeat against West Brom on Saturday, Norwich will be 11 matches unbeaten in the Premier League by the time they welcome Chelsea to Carrow Road.
Everton have lost just one of their last 22 games at Goodison Park. And, for all their struggles, QPR are improving under Harry Redknapp, and almost always raise their level significantly for their hated rivals.
In recent seasons, Chelsea’s fortunes during this hectic culmination of the draining Christmas period have been a fairly reliable forecast of their wider Premier League campaign. Last term, en route to a Roman Abramovich era-worst finish of sixth, they took just five points from a possible 12. The previous year, Carlo Ancelotti’s struggling team garnered just four.
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By the turn of the year any legitimate Premier League title hopes may be gone, but within the first fortnight of 2013 comes the resumption of two competitions which could prove crucial in determining the Spaniard’s Stamford Bridge legacy: an FA Cup third round tie away at Southampton, swiftly followed by the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final against Swansea.
In the FA Cup, Benitez will feel the weight of history on his shoulders. Winning the competition has become something of a rite of passage for Chelsea managers in recent times, with a remarkable four triumphs in the past six years. Meanwhile, one only has to cast the briefest of glances over the £170 million’s worth of talent which started against Leeds to know how seriously the Blues’ interim boss is taking English football’s secondary cup.
By accepting this job, Benitez has willingly placed himself in the tightest of corners, pressed on one side by an unwaveringly hostile fanbase and on the other by an implacably ambitious owner. His only option is to win his way out. Any trophy. Every trophy. And he knows it. “Every competition is important for us,” he told reporters after the Leeds victory. “When you win games, it will be easier getting everybody together.”
Silverware does not guarantee longevity with Abramovich – nothing does – but it does at least grant a considerable consolation when the end comes. Pep Guardiola and possibly others will be courted in the summer regardless of what the ‘interim’ manager does, but any additions to the personal honours list will no doubt be valued elsewhere.
Yet if the reward is great, so is the risk. One trophy has already gone begging under Benitez’s watch. If more follow, questions will be asked of this man, and not just in west London.
Tom Hicks, George Gillett and the ghost of Mourinho have all been blamed for past failures at Liverpool and Inter, but at Chelsea, the Spaniard has the talent and resources he has always craved. There can be no more excuses.
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