The task that lays in front of Rafa Benitez is unquestionably one of the toughest challenges that any manager is likely to face. Granted, he has walked into a club whose resources remain the envy of the vast majority of football clubs throughout the world, but if you are unable to get your own supporters on side, then the job is never likely to be an enjoyable experience.
The chorus of disapproval that has reverberated around Stamford Bridge since Bentiez’s controversial appointment last month has made for uncomfortable viewing, and even though his reign is still in its infantry days, it is already beginning to look like an impossible job.
Of course, whilst a large proportion of the anger amongst the Chelsea faithful is being aimed directly at Rafa, the true reason for the outbursts of emotion lie in the fact that a fans hero, first as player and latterly a manager, was cast aside in such an abrupt and disrespectful manner. Di Matteo’s replacement was never likely to be particularly well received, and the fact that the replacement is Benitez, who aimed many criticisms at Chelsea during his tenure at Anfield, merely rubs salt into already deep wounds.
From a neutral perspective, there is an element of sympathy that can be aimed towards Benitez. He is undoubtedly a top quality manager, emphasised by the job he did at Liverpool, but he has entered into a role that he will never be accepted at and it is having a detrimental effect on his reputation.
The only possible way that Benitez can win round the crowd at Stamford Bridge is through obtaining impressive results. In a not too dissimilar situation up at Newcastle a couple of years ago, Alan Pardew’s appointment as manager was greeted in an equally hostile manner, although the issues between Pardew and supporters were less personal.
With Chris Houghton disgracefully sacked despite performing minor miracles up in the North East, Pardew’s appointment was greeted with a hum of dissatisfaction, and few envisaged that he would ever be able to win over the Newcastle public, who are as passionate and vociferous fans as any in the country. But the results Pardew managed slowly saw him accepted, and last season’s impressive sixth place finish saw Pardew rewarded with a lengthy eight year contract and the early days surrounded in negativity a distant memory.
Benitz can take heart from that story and apply it to his own situation, but results haven’t been great since his appointment, and this has added to the anger. Three domestic games have yielded no wins, two points and just a solitary goal as Chelsea’s early season promise threatens to descend into a real season of struggle both domestically and in Europe.
Another factor that goes against Benitez is that he has only agreed a deal until the end of this current campaign, raising the question as to what he really hopes to achieve in such a short period of time. Titled as “interim manager”, this smacks of short term vision by Abramovich, which makes the nature of Di Matteo’s departure all the more bizarre.
Chelsea’s next three fixtures see the club embark on three different competitions, with a Premier League match with Sunderland sandwiched between a crucial Champions League tie with FC Nordsjaelland and a League Cup quarter final at Leeds. These fixtures present Benitez with an opportunity to prove himself, and keep Chelsea in the hunt for, well …two trophies. Yet the reversal is also very conceivable, and with the traditional busy Christmas schedule fast approaching, Chelsea’s season could very quickly fall apart completely, and it would be tough to see Benitez’s position becoming anything other than untenable were the worst to materialise.
Benitez can’t be blamed for accepting a job of such magnitude, but Abramovich can be blamed for bringing these problems upon himself. It was he who made the diabolical decision to sack Di Matteo in the same calendar year that he guided Chelsea to FA Cup and European success. And it was he who made the appointment of Benitez, a move that he must surely have known would isolate and anger the supporters of the very club he owns.
Past precedence shows that when the fans aren’t on side, then you aren’t going to succeed. Chelsea’s predicament has similar traits to Steve Kean’s ill fated tenure at Blackburn. He was simply never able to win over the supporters, and you always sensed he was a dead man walking, especially after relegation was confirmed in May. The only surprise in his eventual departure was that he remained in the job as long as he did. Like Kean, it appears that Benitez will never receive the seal of approval he needs from his own supporters, and, like Kean, you sense that it is a situation that is only destined to end in failure.