By Greg Stobart at Stamford Bridge
Maybe Rafael Benitez can take some comfort from the fact the Chelsea crowd waited until the final whistle to boo this time, but all life appears to have been sucked out of the club following the appointment of the Spaniard to replace Roberto Di Matteo last week.
Benitez, the Blues’ interim manager, watched on in frustration as his side played out a desperately dire goalless home draw with Fulham on Wednesday night, the second 0-0 in his two games in charge of the club.
Long gone is the attacking swagger that took Chelsea to the top of the Premier League table in October. They now sit third in the league, seven points behind leaders Manchester United and in dismal form following a run of just two wins in their last 10 matches.
Why Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich thought Benitez would be the man to turn the tide is anyone’s guess.
Long gone is the attacking swagger that took Chelsea to the top of the Premier League table in October
Now mutiny is in the air in west London. In the 16th minute, Stamford Bridge woke from its slumber to hail sacked Di Matteo, while in the closing stages chants of ‘we want our Chelsea back’ rang around the ground.
Benitez insisted after the game that Chelsea can still win the title, claimed that he will turn the team’s form around with hard work on the training pitch.
Of course he needs time. The former Liverpool boss has only had five training sessions and cannot expect instant results with so much to work on, from attacking tactics to rebuilding the confidence of players who look scared of their own shadows.
Yet those same players will not be be able to escape the negativity around the club at the moment. Fernando Torres cannot shrug off the fact that he has gone nearly 11 hours without a goal when Chelsea fans are groaning almost every time he gets on the ball.
Benitez avoided the anger and hostility that greeted his first appearance in the dugout in Sunday’s clash with Manchester City, the best part of 40,000 spectators making an almost unconscious silent protest as Abramovich watched on from his executive box.
This was the kind of match that Chelsea are used to winning, even when playing badly, but there is no power left in the batteries. Benitez needs to work out a way to recharge the squad but does so from the most difficult of starting points.
Managerial appointments that are hugely unpopular with supporters rarely work out. Whether its Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, Alex McLeish at Aston Villa or George Graham at Tottenham - fans’ minds are hard to change.
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Benitez will not be afforded the time he needs by the Chelsea faithful, perhaps not even by Abramovich, despite only signing a contract until the end of the season.
Benitez will point to another clean sheet and a well-organised defence against a Fulham side that could have nicked a victory on the counterattack in the second half had John Arne Riise been more ruthless in front of goal.
Yet the Blues created virtually nothing in attack, the best opportunity a tame turn and shot by Torres on the half-hour mark. The rest was slow and tepid, devoid of any creativity. Benitez will reflect that he made the wrong decision in resting playmaker Juan Mata, Chelsea’s best player so far this season.
When Chelsea needed a boost after a shaky run of form and the dismissal of a popular manager, Abramovich made just about the worst possible appointment. Rather than invigorate the crowd and the squad, Chelsea’s first days under Benitez feel dark and miserable.
On Saturday, the European champions travel to West Ham. Benitez will probably be relieved to get away from the negativity of Stamford Bridge, but he faces far more work to turn the tide.
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