By Ewan Roberts
Even in his most recent match, five months after taking over the reigns at Stamford Bridge, Rafa Benitez was sbooed by the Chelsea faithful. The jeers, heckles and signs ('we're just not that in ter im') still exist, the support for the manager remains non-existent and when he does leave at the end of the season, Blues supporters will not blink an eye. But clubs across Europe should.
Benitez has done a remarkable job in west London, whether Chelsea claim the Europa League title on Wednesday night or not. The side he has guided to Amsterdam, plus two domestic cup semi-finals and probably third place in the league, finished last season in sixth position. When he took over from Roberto Di Matteo, the club had fewer points than West Brom.
The Spanish boss has kept Chelsea competitive in the league – they could still have caught Manchester City up until the FA Cup finalists beat Reading in their penultimate game of the season – despite the exit of talismanic spearhead Didier Drogba, and a host of useful squad players. He has led a charge in Europe, got the best out of Juan Mata and injected more youth into the side without disrupting the balance of the squad or angering the Blues' ageing core.
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Losses against Manchester United and West Brom, frustrating draws against Swansea and Liverpool, and faltering Champions League form sealed Di Matteo's fate. Benitez duly oversaw a 6-1 win over Nordsjaelland, fulfilling his end of the bargain (and equalling the biggest win Di Matteo ever recorded) but the Blues crashed out of the competition, the first reigning champions to exit the new competition at the group stage – though that indignity was brewed under Di Matteo's watch, not Benitez's.
He made amens for that in the Europa League, harnessing his immense tactical nous to guide Chelsea past a sticky set of ties despite a small squad ("There aren't many players here," he lamented in December). In every draw the Blues were given a banana skin, lengthy trips across the globe to Prague, Bucharest and Moscow, before taking on Swiss champions – and conquerors of Tottenham – Basel in the semi-finals.
But Benitez managed his squad admirably, despite its threadbare status being maintained, rather than addressed, in January. Demba Ba was brought in for £7 million and Daniel Sturridge joined Liverpool for £12m – a net profit of £5m. Benitez, as any potential suitors should note, does not need an enormous budget in order to garner results.
Dissenters will point to the £78 million net spend at Liverpool, but as soon as the sale of Fernando Torres is factored in – a player recruited under Benitez and who was sold for £50m just six months after the former Valencia boss had left Anfield – then that figure drops to just £4.6m net spend per season he was at the club. Liverpool won the FA Cup, the Champions League and finished runners-up in the Premier League with a points haul (86) that would win the title most years, all on a budget that is normally associated with the blue half of Merseyside.
The rotation policy so often mocked while at Liverpool has been intrinsic to Chelsea's ability to compete on so many fronts. The club will have played an astonishing 69 games by the time the curtain falls on the season, yet the players have been managed brilliantly – and this is with a squad of barely 22 men, and that is including Paulo Ferreira and Yossi Benayoun. Of the Three Amigos, Eden Hazard has completed 90 minutes most often, yet he has only done so 26 times in all competitions, while Branislav Ivanovic is the most used outfield player, but has only played a full match in three-quarters of Chelsea's games.
Tactically he has tweaked Di Matteo's 4-2-3-1, moving Mata into the middle of the three offensive players behind a lone striker. Under the Italian, Hazard and, predominantly, Oscar were deployed in the hole, with Mata on the left wing. The move infield under Benitez has seen the 25-year-old flourish, seeing more of the ball, controlling and dictating Chelsea's style and tempo. At home to Manchester United, Mata (on the left wing) had fewer passes, key passes and touches than he would in the return match at Old Trafford, where he lined up in a central position.
Chelsea have been incredibly well drilled in all phases of play: compact, hard to break down and solid when not in possession of the ball. Expansive, fluid and attacking when they do.
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Frank Lampard may have broken Bobby Tambling's goal scoring record, and lead the club's scoring charts, but he was almost phased out before signing a new contract at the 11th hour. Equally, John Terry has barely featured, making just 11 league starts. These stalwarts remain useful, but they are no longer crutches. Chelsea no longer need to lean on them. In their place, youth has risen, most notably David Luiz.
The Brazilian defender-cum-midfielder credits the “fantastic” Benitez with his transformation. "He changed my game and helped a lot," said Luiz. "He gives me confidence to try some things, like shots and passes to help the team. He knows my football, so I like that. That is why I have improved."
Benitez is, inescapably, a bad fit for Chelsea, but he has used his time in west London well, restoring the reputation that was damaged at Inter. As the manager merry-go-round kicks in to full swing this summer, and as Benitez prepares for the fourth major European final of his career, clubs across Europe would be wise to take another look at the Spaniard's CV.
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