Chelsea & Abramovich must accept the Benitez experiment has failed

The unpopular Spaniard has presided over nothing but decline since his arrival at Stamford Bridge, and now only the Blues owner can lead the club out of its downward spiral
By Liam Twomey

On resigning as Manchester City manager in August 1996, three games into the Division One season, Alan Ball lamented what he dubbed a ‘get-rid-of-the-manager’ syndrome in football.

“The manager picks the team but invariably it’s the punters who pick the manager,” he told reporters. As a soundbite it is neat and memorable enough, and as an assessment it might even account for the unique brand of volatile and at times farcical running of most clubs.

But Chelsea, at least under Roman Abramovich, are emphatically not most clubs. The Russian billionaire has built for himself a personal fiefdom in west London where his voice, occasionally influenced by self-interested ‘advisors’, is the only one which is heard.

Not a single one of the thousands who frequently fill Stamford Bridge to watch their team would have as much as contemplated Rafa Benitez as their manager, even if a handful were unmoved enough by Roberto Di Matteo’s miraculous Champions League triumph to be anything less than sickened by his brutal and premature departure in November.

Benitez was never an acceptable Chelsea boss – a fact he must surely have known before he took the job. Either astonishing naivety or unabashed ambition compelled him, and those who could never view him as anything other than a provocative presence made their feelings known. They did not want him then, and nothing since has changed their minds.

The interim boss believed he could overcome the stigma of the tribalism he encouraged at Liverpool with that most potent of antidotes: winning football matches. We will never know whether he was right, because results and performances since that Champions League humiliation at the hands of Juventus have come nowhere close to the level required.

That defeat condemned Chelsea to the ignominy of becoming the first European champions to end their defence at the group stage, but the wider picture was considerably brighter. Only four points off the top of the Premier League, there was also the novelty of a Club World Cup campaign to look forward to, as well as opportunity for consolation in the domestic cups.

Three months on, a once promising campaign has long been written off.

The trip to Japan proved a waste of time and energy, hopes of silverware in the Capital One Cup ended with a whimper and the kick of a ball boy, and Saturday’s defeat to Newcastle means Manchester United have pulled an embarrassing 16 points clear of their nearest London rivals with victory over Fulham.

In terms of results, Benitez has presided over nothing but decline. Fourth-placed Tottenham can close the gap to just one point with a win over West Brom on Sunday, while only the equally obvious failings of Everton, Arsenal and Liverpool have prevented the Blues’ hopes of Champions League qualification coming under more serious threat.
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This too, however, may only be a matter of time.

Nor has there been any improvement in performances. The Spaniard was ostensibly brought in to spark Fernando Torres while making the team more compact, balanced and solid defensively. But Torres has only netted eight goals in 20 games since Di Matteo was sacked, while a previously leaky defence has only kept six clean sheets in 21.

Admittedly there is the underlying sense that Abramovich’s dictatorial style of leadership extends to the playing as well as the administrative side. Chelsea’s suicidal commitment to playing the ball out of defence and farcical persistence with playing Torres regardless of form has now remained curiously consistent under four very different managers.

In this, then, Benitez can perhaps claim mitigation. He has also been unlucky – deprived of the services and leadership of John Terry until recently, shorn of the underrated Jon Obi Mikel and the impressive Victor Moses by Afcon commitments, and tormented by injuries to Petr Cech and David Luiz. Demba Ba’s broken nose is also an unforeseen hindrance.

Yet clubs have ridden worse storms and borne heavier burdens than these. Chelsea, too, are capable. They did so last season. But it is the very presence of Benitez, and all he represents, which has sealed off all the escape shafts from this particular downward spiral.

For a club so often lambasted for its unbridled short-termism and instability, it seems counter-intuitive to argue another change of manager is the right way forward. But no club can progress if it is divided against itself. Benitez cannot stop the rut because the situation renders him incapable.

It is up to Abramovich, unaccountable and inscrutable as he is, to act. And soon.

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