By Oliver Platt
The Rafael Benitez era at Chelsea will roll on beyond this FA Cup tie but surely cannot last much longer.
The Blues were fortunate to be in the hat for the fifth round draw, bailed out by an increasingly rare example of Fernando Torres coming up trumps when it mattered against Brentford, who had twice taken the lead against the more illustrious west London club at Griffin Park.
Sir Alex changed his mind and, in retrospect, admitted that the pre-announcement had been "an absolute disaster". It had only served to unsettle those who had a good relationship with him; those who did not had been going through the motions in anticipation of a new man. Dwight Yorke belonged to the latter group and when Sir Alex told the squad he was staying, Roy Keane memorably turned to the striker and said: "That's you ****** then, Yorkie."
There are similar parallels at Chelsea. There is clearly mutual admiration between Benitez and Juan Mata; the playmaker welcomed the "great coach" to Stamford Bridge and when the Blues were trailing at half-time against Brentford, Benitez had the ear of his compatriot from the bench all the way to the tunnel as he prepared to introduce him as a substitute.
Mata has emerged as a leader but even a player of his quality cannot do it all and elsewhere, it is easy to imagine a great deal of apathy. Of the core of the previous title-winning Chelsea teams, Didier Drogba has left and Frank Lampard will join him in seeking pastures new in the summer. Even John Terry is out of contract in 2014 and it is far from certain he will stay beyond that term. Ashley Cole has renewed for a further year but, again, it is likely to be his last.
These players have won all four major club trophies in England and Europe, crowning their domestic accomplishments with victory in the Champions League only eight months ago. This season, one manager has already been dismissed, the Premier League title is out of reach and one potential run to Wembley ended at the semi-final stage when Swansea knocked them out of the Capital One Cup. Only the FA Cup - which Chelsea have won four times since 2006-07 - and the Europa League remain. What do Lampard, Terry and Cole really have left to play for?
|BENITEZ'S CHELSEA RECORD
Benitez will probably keep Chelsea in the top four with ease and that will satisfy Abramovich as he ponders his next move after missing out on Pep Guardiola. But every time something significant has been at stake, their lack of focus and drive has showed.
Any remote hope of rejoining the title race was ended by the home disappointments against QPR and Southampton. Corinthians evidently valued the Club World Cup much more than Chelsea did. And the Blues then failed to score a single goal over two legs against Swansea, a failure overshadowed by the ridiculous behaviour of Eden Hazard and a ball boy.
Benitez has insisted that his focus remains on the league but he must have known that without silverware of some kind, it would be impossible to win round the Chelsea fans that have largely rejected his presence ever since he was appointed. The sense of injustice that was prevalent in the staunch defence of himself he launched before the Brentford tie was telling.
"If you analyse the previous managers, how many had pre-season here? Not me," he complained. "How many spent massive money here? Not me. How many had to go to Japan in mid-season with players injured and had players in the African Nations Cup? Only me."
His grievances may be valid but they are beside the point. The reasons for Benitez's incompatibility with this job are not new or emerging now. They have been present and visible since day one.
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