By Liam Twomey
When his Chelsea side take to the field at the International Stadium in Yokohama on Thursday, Rafael Benitez may well sense an opportunity for redemption in more ways than one.
Not only does returning from Japan with the Blues’ first ever Club World Cup trophy represent the likeliest way to lessen the barrage of hostility from fans still seething at Roberto Di Matteo’s brutal sacking, but such a triumph would also be achieved at the scene of one of the Spaniard’s greatest managerial disappointments.
Seven years ago, Benitez led Liverpool – only months removed from performing the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ – to Yokohama, with dreams of garnishing their ‘kings of Europe’ tag with the even grander-sounding title of ‘World Champions’.
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Benitez had no part to play in the astonishing chain of events which have led Chelsea to this point, but the challenge which faces him now is similar to 2005. Mexican champions Monterrey await in the last four, while victory would set up a date with destiny against either Egypt’s finest Al-Ahly or another distinguished member of the Brazilian elite, Corinthians.
Should he emerge victorious, Benitez will buy himself some precious time in the most volatile managerial seat in football. Fortunately, on recent evidence, his chances of success look good.
Tepid home draws with Manchester City and Fulham only served to add conviction to Chelsea fans’ complaints about the Spaniard’s negative tactics, while an alarming second-half collapse away to West Ham had them baying for his blood.
But against Nordsjaelland and Sunderland the European champions scored, dominated and, crucially, won. It was not enough to prevent a Champions League group stage exit, but there was at least some semblance of unity of desire and purpose, and Fernando Torres tantalisingly hinted that, while clearly no longer the force of old, he may not yet be a lost cause either.
Few will be convinced that results against such lowly and out-of-form opposition herald a genuine revival. But in Japan, around 6,000 miles away from the boos and the intense scrutiny of Stamford Bridge, Benitez has a unique chance to show the improvement exhibited by his team and his star striker can be a solid foundation rather than simply another false dawn.
To succeed, peace may well have to be made with Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole. The decision not to renew the contracts of the aging duo was undoubtedly not made by Chelsea’s interim manager, but the choice to announce as much to the world’s press before the players themselves had been informed was all his own, and ill-advised in the extreme.
Benitez is not a coach who looks to forge deep emotional bonds with his players – Steven Gerrard’s autobiography famously recalls how he struggled to raise a smile out of his manager after Liverpool’s glorious night in Istanbul – but a man with his keen instincts for self-preservation will surely recognise the value of getting club legends and powerful dressing room presences on side.
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Regardless of what happens, Chelsea may well find themselves 13 points behind Manchester United on their return to Premier League action. Recent struggles mean the title looks an unlikely target now, but Club World Cup success is a far more probable spark for any miraculous domestic comeback than failure.
For Benitez, there is also the call of history. He is embarking on an unprecedented third Club World Cup, and has the chance to join Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola in the exclusive bracket of managers who have won the trophy twice. This may not be the most highly-regarded competition, but any manager who still uses his 2010 success to mask a disastrous spell with Inter clearly possesses an acute sensitivity towards his own reputation. You can bet the thought will have crossed his mind.
At present, the Spaniard remains an interim manager for an interim club. Should Chelsea disappoint in Japan, a world of anger and speculation will await his return. Should they win, however, he will move a step closer to gaining grudging tolerance, if not quite acceptance or respect.
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