Whisper it, but is Rafa turning the tide?Comment on this story
London – When it comes to Chelsea, there must be caution in trying to predict a period of time as long as the next five months.
But if Roman Abramovich can still that trigger-finger until April, it might just be that he has title contenders towards the end of it.
There must also be caution when assessing a victory at Sunderland, who slid into the relegation zone, but Chelsea got a lot right on Wearside. Rafa Benitez got the first Barclays Premier League win of his reign. Fernando Torres scored his first league goals for two months. Oscar was excellent, the movement was fast and fluent. The claim that the title is a Mancunian two-horse race seemed premature.
Step back from the soap opera that Chelsea have become and assess what they possess: a superb, deep squad with hugely talented attackers, fine midfielders, experienced defenders and a leader of a goalkeeper in Petr Cech.
They have Frank Lampard coming back and John Terry soon to join him. They have signings lined up for January, perhaps more than we know. And they have a manager in Benitez, liked or not, who has proved that he can organise and motivate.
Yet Abramovich’s hire ’em, fire ’em methods have shot holes in the team’s reputation, because they are being marketed as also-rans, when they are not. True, they began the game 10 points behind Manchester United, but only 40 per cent of the season has gone. It is too soon to be calling such gaps insurmountable and Benitez is not convinced by the two-horse theory.
“You have to remember last year that in January everyone was saying that Manchester City would win the title easily,” he said. “And yet at the end on the last day they could have lost it and had to score in the last minute to win it.”
“If we play at this level and at this intensity we will win games in a row and hopefully we will be there.”
A run of league games is just what Chelsea do not have, however. The club flew from North East to Far East for the Club World Cup. Chelsea’s first game is on Thursday. Their next Premier League game is Aston Villa at home on Sunday week. They could be parading a trophy.
It is unlikely that will appease all supporters, though. All afternoon at the Stadium of Light, the 3,000 away fans sang: ‘We don’t care about Rafa, he don’t care about us,’ and when that was put to Benitez, he replied: “I care about the team, I care about the club and everyone here, and I want to win. I will try to do my best from day one to the last day.”
On his personal website on Sunday, there was an “open letter” in which Benitez thanked those who have sent “messages, emails, letters”. He is trying.
This display will do no harm. Metaphorically and literally, Chelsea were flying. Effectively the formation was 4-2-4 and Eden Hazard should have had a penalty before Torres stabbed home an 11th-minute volley.
If Point One of Benitez’s remit was to get more from Torres, he has begun. It was not so much the finish, slick as it was, it was the fact that Torres rolled Carlos Cuellar on the halfway line before making the ground up to score from six yards. The difference there was a £50million striker and a free-transfer centre half.
Sunderland fought against their status, and Danny Rose (on loan) was impressive. Adam Johnson had a very good game against Ashley Cole. Johnson scored a cracking goal on 66 minutes but Sunderland had been undermined by defensive mistakes by Seb Larsson and Phil Bardsley (both substituted). But if Martin O’Neill’s side play like this tomorrow night at home to Reading, they should leap out of the bottom three. They kept Cech busy.
The first error, by Larsson, enabled Torres to score from the penalty spot to make it 2-0 — his first senior penalty in England remarkably — and when Torres hit a post just after half-time, Juan Mata followed up.
If there was a quibble, it is that Chelsea are like two five-a-side teams in one XI. Like every Chelsea manager, Benitez needs glue. – Daily Mail