x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rafa Benitez wins the battle of wits with Sir Alex Ferguson again

Unlike the last time, hands were shaken with the Manchester United manager but, once again, the Spaniard had the better of his counterpart in Chelsea's 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final triumph.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 01: Petr Cech of Chelsea saves from Javier Hernandez of Manchester United during the FA Cup with Budweiser Sixth Round Replay match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on April 1, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 165173474.jpg
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 01: Petr Cech of Chelsea saves from Javier Hernandez of Manchester United during the FA Cup with Budweiser Sixth Round Replay match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on April 1, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 165173474.jpg

It was around 14 hours before kick off at Stamford Bridge that rumours swept across the internet and social networking sites. Rafa Benitez had been sacked. Was it an early April Fools' Day joke? An indication of the instability at Chelsea that they would need a new interim manager? Or, to use a word indelibly associated with Benitez, fact?

It soon transpired it was a hoax. Benitez, the unwanted, unpopular appointment does not merely remain at Stamford Bridge. He has the finest result of his troubled spell in London, eliminating Manchester United from the FA Cup, overcoming his old adversary Sir Alex Ferguson and extending his quest to secure the happy ending that might equip him for employment elsewhere.

Secure a trophy and Benitez can depart in the summer with his reputation as a winner re-established. It has been eroded as, since his Liverpool side clinched the FA Cup in 2006, he has only lifted the Club World Cup. Yet while he may always polarise opinion, a CV with the glint of silverware will give him an appeal.

Especially when it is not just won but earned. Despite Ferguson's pre-match assertions that Chelsea have benefited from easy draws in the FA Cup, this was achieved the hard way.

United led 2-0 in the tie at Old Trafford and, in any analysis of the turnaround, Benitez's input was pivotal. When he introduced Eden Hazard and John Obi Mikel at Old Trafford, the chorus from the Chelsea fans was "you don't know what you're doing". After a Hazard-inspired comeback, they had a replay.

Once again, Benitez helped decide it. His squad rotation will always be controversial - unlike Ferguson's, even though the Scot tinkers more - but after a weakened team lost at Southampton on Saturday, a stronger side had more energy and quality than United. While the obstinate Benitez rarely appears plagued by self doubt, this was vindication.

Along the way, Benitez confounded a few preconceptions. Hired to be Fernando Torres's great champion, he selected Demba Ba and saw him score a delightful winner. Deemed defensive, he chose the trio of creators, in Juan Mata, Hazard and Oscar, and watched each exert a significant influence in the second half. A manager who used to specialise in picking the right team in the Uefa Champions League showed that his touch in big games has not deserted him. The omissions of Frank Lampard and John Terry, the Chelsea icons who were left on the bench, scarcely ranked a mention.

Unlike the last time, hands were shaken with Ferguson but, once again, the battle of wits was won. The United manager has lost skirmishes with Benitez before but invariably triumphed in the war. Those who wish to downplay the Spaniard's contribution, and Ferguson rarely affords him credit, can point out that Chelsea invariably win FA Cup ties, whoever the manager is.

Apart from a penalty shoot-out loss to Everton, they have gone 28 games without defeat since 2008, a run that validates Roman Abramovich's revolving-door policy.

Since the Russian's takeover, Chelsea against United has been England's dominant rivalry. Four meetings this season have produced a draw, two narrow Chelsea wins and a United victory against nine men. It suggests little separates the reigning European champions and the next Premier League winners.

The table, however, showed 25 points between them last year and 22 this. It is there that consistency can be measured and stability proves most beneficial. A comparison of the flair players, with the effervescent threat of Hazard, the languid class of Mata and the budding skill of Oscar, illustrated Chelsea's underachievement in the league. That United are overachieving, too, was apparent. Ferguson configures his side to stop talented teams; hence the presence of Phil Jones as the midfield sentry. Runaway leaders played like underdogs.

Perhaps, had Wayne Rooney been fit, it would have been different. Perhaps Ferguson could have opted, as Benitez did, to spare his most gifted player a league game on Saturday.

Instead, Robin van Persie started at Sunderland and was a substitute at Stamford Bridge. With the relentless focus on regaining the league, it showed where his priorities lie. For Benitez, interim management has been a juggling act.

After two matches in 48 hours, Chelsea may now face 10 games in 32 days.

In his inimitable, much-criticised way, he will have to carry on rotating if the pariah of Stamford Bridge is to end with the prize of a trophy.

 

sports@thenational.ae