By Liam Twomey
In an age where football is striving to become more scientific, squad rotation remains very much an art. There are no set rules, only the endlessly particular circumstances of each game, and navigating them invariably separates the good managers from the great ones.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s weekly tinkering with one firm eye on the strategy of a season has become a legendary virtue. For Claudio Ranieri, however, it spawned a sneering nickname which has dogged him ever since. It can be inspired or misguided but, win, lose or draw, it is very often telling.
Immediately following Chelsea’s shock home defeat to QPR on Wednesday, Rafa Benitez knew he would be questioned by the hordes of assembled journalists about the wisdom of benching Juan Mata and Eden Hazard for a match in which his team looked desperately short of imagination.
His hand was forced, he claimed, by fatigue. “We cannot carry on with the same players, and if you play against a team at the bottom of the table at home, you have to trust your players,” he insisted. “The main thing was we were a little bit tired, and you could see we didn’t have the intensity on the ball we were expecting.”
Admittedly Chelsea have a right to be tired. The QPR loss was their fourth match in 11 days, and their 10th in just over a month – a run which also included a wasted 12,000-mile round trip to Japan. The festive schedule is always punishing, but the Blues have had it harder than most.
Yet a glance at the fixture list might have suggested that Saturday’s FA Cup Third Round tie away at Southampton was a more suitable moment to bring in fresh legs. The oldest domestic cup competition in the world is big on history and prestige but, in the modern game, England’s top clubs routinely keep their over-worked stars benched until the latter stages.
The fact that Benitez chose not to wait until the weekend is significant, not only because it exposes an alarming ignorance of just how important beating Chelsea is to QPR, but also because, if the big guns are restored to the team for the clash with the Saints, it offers an interesting insight into the Spaniard’s true aspirations for his temporary reign at Stamford Bridge.
Wednesday’s costly slip-up leaves the Blues 14 points behind Manchester United in the Premier League, albeit with a game in hand. Before the Club World Cup expedition, any talk of the title was considered optimistic at best. Now it could be viewed as a sign of madness.
With United making a habit of scoring their way out of trouble, none of the chasing pack could afford a stumble, let alone defeat at home to the league’s bottom club. Benitez knows this as well as anyone, so the fact he still took the risk of shuffling his pack suggests getting Chelsea back into the title race is fairly low on his list of priorities.
This may sound strange, but the Spaniard is merely playing the percentages. After a patchy and disrupted first half of the campaign, the Blues were always unlikely to challenge the Manchester giants for the Premier League crown. Success in the FA Cup – a competition the club have won a remarkable four times in the last six years – is a much better bet.
Ever-present in the back of Benitez’s mind is the knowledge that, regardless of how this season transpires, he is unlikely to remain at Stamford Bridge beyond the summer. The fans are simply too hostile, and Roman Abramovich too enamoured with other, more glamorous names, for him to have a long-term future – if the concept even exists at Chelsea anymore.
In reality, then, the 52-year-old is setting himself up for his next job, and trying to shake the stigma of a disastrous and damaging spell at Inter. The most effective way of doing this is by winning trophies, no matter how big or small. This is why he fielded full-strength sides against a clearly inferior Monterrey in the Club World Cup, and Leeds in the Capital One Cup.
Self-interested it may be, but then Benitez has always been a man especially motivated by his own reputation.
As his reign at Liverpool stagnated, he proved as capable a propagandist as a tactician, using the chaotic ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett to mask his own failings with Reds fans. At Inter, he insisted he was fatally undermined by a squad still in the thrall of his old nemesis Jose Mourinho, without ever acknowledging his own aloof and confrontational style as a factor.
But the Spaniard has also undeniably been conditioned by his environment at Chelsea. He has been appointed interim boss of an interim club where immediate success is king.
This vision is not necessarily conducive to enduring the peaks and troughs of a title challenge, particularly when allied to an apparent fondness for sacking the manager on average every six months. It is no coincidence that since Mourinho left Stamford Bridge, seven Chelsea bosses have won six cups, but only one Premier League crown between them.
Attacking the cups with full strength has become club tradition in the Abramovich era, and it is one Benitez is likely to honour at St Mary’s on Saturday.
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