Rafael Benitez needs two goals, minimum, in Wales tonight to have even a puncher’s chance of defeating Swansea City. And if he gets them: so what? That is the problem for Chelsea managers in the post-Di Matteo era. They used to think they knew what would keep Roman Abramovich happy. Large-scale success. The Premier League or Champions League crown, the odd minor trophy on the way. It was a tall order, obviously, but at least a man knew where he stood. Win big, or hit the road. Now even that is no guarantee.
Roberto Di Matteo won the Champions League and was gone within months. If Abramovich could have found a major coach willing to come to Stamford Bridge in the summer, Di Matteo’s departure after the miracle of Munich would have been measured in days.
So, as Chelsea strive to overturn a first-leg deficit against Swansea tonight, never forget this match exists entirely in the moment. It has no further meaning, it is no longer good or bad news for those involved. If the Champions League was downgraded to an irrelevant bauble within the calendar year, what price the newly minted Capital One Cup?
What does Benitez have to do to pass the Abramovich test? The truth is, he doesn’t know. Even those closest to Abramovich cannot always say for certain. But it may involve making the boss look smart.
Benitez is toeing the company line on Frank Lampard, he is staying patient with Fernando Torres, he is trying to find a midfield role for David Luiz.
At most clubs, when a new manager arrives, the playing staff enjoy a clean slate. At his first press conference, Benitez was asked about Florent Malouda, frozen out by the previous regime. Could he again be involved in the squad? No, Benitez said.
He had taken one training session at that time. Either Malouda put in the worst shift in the history of football, or the coach was already under instruction: no way back. Malouda has been training with the youth team lately, and looks likely to leave in this transfer window.
So we can presume Benitez aims to please. And who knows how these policies are going down upstairs? Torres and Luiz, two of the great conundrums for any Chelsea manager, were Abramovich signings, after all. If Benitez gets the pair playing — and he has more chance with Luiz than Torres, who increasingly looks beyond repair — the owner may come to regard him as an inspired choice.
Despite protests to the contrary, Torres remains key to this. Abramovich has more than a casual £50million tied up in the striker. He has pride, plus his personal judgment and reputation. He thinks he knows football, he thinks he knows a player, so every time Torres flops it is as if this status is decried, and his peers — football’s real experts, those who played the game — are laughing at his upstart pretensions.
The desire for a coach who can return Torres to his form of old, therefore, goes well beyond mere financial investment. Right now, Abramovich looks a mug. People with his wealth and power do not appreciate the role of stooge.
So Chelsea could still go out tonight but if Torres plays and scores, or shines, Benitez will head back to London, reputation intact.
His problem is that Torres looks as far away from recovering his Liverpool form as he did under Chelsea’s previous three coaches. He wants to knock the ball past the last defender, but no longer has the legs to get there, and his touch is off. Luiz may yet make a fine defensive midfield player, but Torres is half the talent he was on arrival, if that.
The hierarchy were shocked by the animosity towards Benitez, without doubt. The presumption that it would fade with time has also proved optimistic.
There may not be as much uproar on the 16th minute as there was initially — 16 being Di Matteo’s Chelsea number — but the mood is febrile and turns the moment Chelsea disappoint or go behind. Some around Abramovich believe Benitez cannot be retained in any circumstances for that reason, but the owner has gone it alone before.
The presumption is that Abramovich is surrounded by yes men, nodding dogs who conform to his every whim, stay silent, wait for his master’s voice, and then agree. That isn’t entirely true. Contrary opinions are sometimes given; just not always heeded.
Abramovich was in a minority of one in wanting Carlo Ancelotti out after the Italian failed to follow up his first season Double with further success. Sadly for Ancelotti, Abramovich’s raised hand carries the same weight as a block vote from the Transport and General Workers Union at Labour Party conferences in the Seventies.
Those around Abramovich, including chairman Bruce Buck, argued that Ancelotti merited a third season. Abramovich disagreed. He no longer liked Chelsea’s style of football and thought the team had lost momentum.
It was different when Di Matteo was appointed. Abramovich didn’t fancy him, and neither did the other directors. Despite this, with prime targets unavailable, the board were railroaded by pressure from media, fans and the public to reward the man who had won Europe’s greatest prize against all odds.
Privately, Chelsea’s hierarchy shared the opinion of the club’s most vehement detractors: Di Matteo had got lucky and his success was no reflection on his ability, just a fortunate set of circumstances unlikely to be repeated. Had the brief downturn in results that led to his dismissal come sooner, Di Matteo’s tenure would have been even shorter. His was a sacking waiting to happen.
Smaller clubs have to conjure a formula to define success — David Moyes is regarded as having done an excellent job at Everton despite not winning a trophy, while Alan Pardew was manager of the year for getting Newcastle United to fifth place — but the majority of elite clubs have a simpler measurement. Trophies.
Now Abramovich has broken with this convention, we are all guessing. Did it matter that Benitez failed to win the Club World Cup against Corinthians? Probably not, considering Abramovich did not even bother to attend the final. Had Benitez succeeded, would it have played any part in securing his position? The evidence suggests otherwise.
Equally, Chelsea could win by three at Swansea tonight, with the owner unmoved. They could lose and Benitez’s stock may hold firm. Who knows any more, now that football is no longer a results business at Stamford Bridge?
Ultimately, Benitez’s handling of individuals may count for more than any domestic final, certainly one contended by the likes of Birmingham City and Cardiff City in recent seasons.
Forget the Champions League trophy or the Capital One Cup. Proving the boss right over Torres? For Benitez, that may still prove priceless. – Daily Mail