16 May 2013

Rafa: Thank you and goodbye

by Andy McKellar

Rafael Benitez returned to English football in the most surprising of circumstances and arrived at Stamford Bridge under a dark cloud of thundering discontentment from the supporters. It was always going to be challenging for any manager to replace the ever-popular Di Matteo, especially considering his enormous success as interim-manager last season, but the former Anfield boss had been previously outspoken against Chelsea and our fans.

That, of course, was held firmly against him. Benitez, who previously claimed that he would never manage Chelsea out of respect for Liverpool Football Club, was not just unpopular due to his rather unfriendly words. Since the early years of his tenure at Anfield I think it is fair to acknowledge that his career has hardly been awash with highlights. This was perhaps epitomised by his disastrous time as head coach of Inter Milan which lasted only a matter of months. All in all it really was a bizarre appointment.

The early days were not easy for anyone at Chelsea. Supporters were understandably frustrated and angry at the sacking of RDM and were enraged further by the appointment of the Fat Spanish Waiter, as many preferred to call him. The atmosphere at matches was almost poisonous and it must have rather been difficult for the players to concentrate and operate under such circumstances. Di Matteo’s name was defiantly chanted and banners appeared throughout the ground telling everyone exactly what they thought about Benitez. Unfortunately results did little to help matters.

While his record was far from being awful, defeats to the likes of Corinthians, Swansea City and QPR did not stem the grumblings from the Chelsea faithful. The squad was struggling to find a decent level of consistency and some fans complained about an overly negative approach to setting up the team. Things though began to improve and progress in Europe coupled with beating Man United in the FA Cup helped to balance out the few blemishes on his report card. Some supporters though remained stubbornly unconvinced.

Results in the Premier League eventually began to flow and, with the Manchester clubs realistically out of sight in first and second place, the race began for the vital Champions League slots. Arsenal had began to really put together an impressive run of results and Spurs too had held their position in the league table. Finishing outside of the top four would have been a disaster, in terms of finances and of course attracting a new manager and players, but thankfully Benitez achieved his minimum requirement and we look set to finish third.

Last night however Rafael Benitez left Chelsea with a very welcome parting gift and secured his own place in history. A dramatic late goal from Branislav Ivanovic won the Europa League trophy which means that Chelsea are the first club in history to hold both major European titles at the same time. It is a remarkable achievement for a club and a team that has had to endure so much turmoil in recent months and years and it speaks volumes for their character and determination that they were able to continue to be professional and indeed successful. The performance epitomised the many positives within the current squad. Sure, it wasn’t particularly pretty but it was gutsy, determined and highlighted the real mental toughness within the team.

Upon reflection it’s probably fair to acknowledge that it has been a turbulent season that has ebbed and flowed. There have been ups and downs and more matches to contend with than in any year in recent memory. Benfica had played fourteen less games so far this season and it showed for longs spells of last night’s match but thankfully accumulated fatigue and tiredness were not to prove pivotal in determining the final result. Chelsea were winners once again and I was delighted that it was Iva who popped up with the winning goal given his unfortunate suspension for last year’s Champions League win over Bayern Munich. And today the icing on the cake was applied when news broke that Frank Lampard has signed a one-year extension. Happy days!

The Chelsea supporters are unlikely to hold Benitez fondly in their memories and his spell as interim manager could further lessen in significance if indeed the rumours are true and The Special One is to return to Stamford Bridge next season. That said, we should perhaps be able to concede, even grudgingly if we must, that Rafa has indeed served the club well during his time here and that he can leave with his head held high having acted professionally and having performed competently amidst all the chaos that followed his appointment.

Rafael Benitez looks set to leave for pastures new but does so having steadied the ship at Chelsea and succeeded in restoring some credibility to his own damaged reputation. While he was not responsible for assembling the current squad there is little doubt that he made decent use of the players at his disposal and has been effective overall in rotating when required. There is a strong foundation there for any new manager to build upon and there has been talk of further investment being made next season. If Mourinho does indeed return then there are plenty of reasons to be positive.

For now though let us enjoy last night’s success and the fact that we have Champions League football to look forward to next season. Better things are still to come I’m sure.
Most fans will be glad to see him gone. Considerably less so will wish to display any form of appreciation. But from me I suppose I’d offer a reluctant ‘thank you’ and a grateful ‘goodbye’.

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