By Husmukh Kerai at Stamford Bridge
Rafa Benitez was supposed to be barracked with abuse from the stands as Chelsea took to the pitch against West Brom on Saturday. Ranting against dissatisfied supporters was supposed to be the final nail in his coffin. Yet, come kick-off, that torrent of hate failed to fully materialise.
The Spaniard would have visualised emerging from the tunnel before the game into a cauldron of abuse but, in reality, it was all much more understated than anyone would have imagined. Yes, the 53-year-old was on the receiving end of some boos, but no more than that to which he has already become accustomed in his short spell at Stamford Bridge.
|'WERE JUST NOT THAT INTERIM'
|Boos and banners at Stamford Bridge after Rafa Benitez's midweek rant|
Chelsea bossed the Baggies for 75 minutes and deservedly took the lead through Demba Ba before the break, in a match which many saw as the Spaniard's last chance. Steve Clarke's side did put up a very late fight and could have snatched a point but, when the final whistle blew, it was a job well done for Benitez and his men. The 53-year-old deserves credit for his afternoon's work considering the circumstances.
He faced the media after the game with a smile on his face as he took to his seat in front of a packed press room. After witnessing that face slowly melt in front of the cameras during a testing week, it was refreshing to see the Spaniard in good spirit. He described his mood as being back to "normal" and answered questions on the fans' reaction before they had even been asked.
Despite chants of "Stand up if you hate Rafa" and "Jose Mourinho" the former Liverpool boss immediately praised the Chelsea supporters and the effect that they had on his players: "What I could see was the players playing with more confidence and the fans being behind the team.
"It's about the team," he repeated and, judging by their behaviour, sections of the Blues' supporters are now beginning to understand what he is saying. Like him or not, the Spaniard is in charge with Chelsea embroiled in a three-way scrap for two lucrative spots in the Champions League.
For all his troubles in the past seven days, to anyone without an emotional investment in Chelsea, Rafa Benitez is arguably more popular than ever.
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His comments on Wednesday, though, were delivered in a more eloquent and calculated manner. He chose his words carefully and highlighted a problem within the club's fanbase which the majority of football fans across the country would agree is best removed from the game.
Chelsea are in third place in the league, in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and into the last 16 of the Europa League. Anyone who had seen what the 53-year-old has had to endure recently would think the club in turmoil and, while at times it may seem that way, with some perspective you can see that all is not lost for the Blues this season.
From the infamous rant against Sir Alex to lifting the Champions League in the most dramatic circumstances with Liverpool, the Spaniard has experienced some of the highest highs and the lowest lows in front of our eyes.
He deserves credit for his latest venture, negotiating the political minefield that is the modern Chelsea. His lack of authority and control at the club at which he is supposed to be the manager is nothing short of scandalous at times, but he has still managed to steady the ship in the most difficult of circumstances and put the Blues in a position from which they can move forward.
Benitez was booed before Chelsea had even kicked a ball under his management. For dealing with that and everything that has come with it, he merits praise.
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