x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Champions League: Rafa Benitez confident of progression

The London club and their interim manager must record a better result than Juventus in Donetsk, writes Ian Hawkey.

Chelsea's interim manager Rafael Benitez, right, at a training session in preparation for their Group E match with FC Nordsjaelland. GLYN KIRK / AFP
Chelsea's interim manager Rafael Benitez, right, at a training session in preparation for their Group E match with FC Nordsjaelland. GLYN KIRK / AFP

Rafa Benitez has been called many things in the short time he has been in charge of Chelsea's first team. Banners at Stamford Bridge tell him he is unwanted there by a substantial section of support. Official documentation reminds him he is not the manager of Chelsea but, on the terms given him following the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo, he is "interim manager".

Benitez has been in that post for three matches, is thick-skinned enough bear the derisive name-calling from the grandstands, but needs tonight to at least be able call himself, for the first time as a Chelsea employee, "the winning interim manager", if the dissenters are to quieten.

Victory at home against Nordsjaelland tonight is the first of two requirements for the title-holders to dream of continuing their defence of the European Cup into the new year.

That ought to be straightforward, against Danish visitors whose debut Champions League campaign has earned one point in five group matches and whose defence has conceded an average of more than three goals per game.

Were three points the sole obstacle between Chelsea and a place in the last 16 of the competition, Benitez could regard the assignment as one that might be safely wrapped up, perhaps within an hour. But Chelsea's fate is not in their hands, and it will be an evening of stressful, long-distance eavesdropping for the manager, knowing that even his abusers and his backers in the arena will have their minds concentrated as much on events at the Bridge as those in Donetsk, where Juventus only need to draw to condemn Chelsea to third place in Group E and to qualify, along with Shakhtar, at the champions' expense.

Chelsea have some alibis: in spite of their own poor form - just one win in their last eight matches - Nordsjaelland are European lightweights, and can no longer aspire even to third place in the group; Shakhtar have won all their matches, domestic and European, at the Donbass Arena this season; and Chelsea have a manager - well, an interim manager - with an impressive record of pulling his teams back from the brink in Europe.

Should Benitez end the night with Chelsea through, thanks partly to allies in Ukraine, they will be calling him Rafa the Rescuer. They did at Liverpool, early in his time there.

The 2005 European champions faced elimination at the group phase of a Champions League they would go onto win, in the last, early December match of their mini-league. Going into the fixture at home to Olympiakos, Benitez's Liverpool, four months into their new manager's tenure, required either at least 1-0 victory or, if not, a win by a two-goal margin to progress.

Once they fell behind to a Rivaldo goal, the first option deserted them. Not until two minutes after half time did Liverpool equalise. Fewer than 10 minutes were left on the clock when Liverpool went 2-1 up. Four minutes were left when Steven Gerrard's goal made it 3-1, sufficient to go through.

That match is part of Anfield folklore, and one of Benitez's managerial highlights. A fabled comeback, from 3-0 down against AC Milan in Istanbul, to a triumph via penalties, is its highlight. That gave him the European Cup that most distinguishes his CV.

Benitez made the comparison with his 2004/05 season ahead of tonight's match.

"If we go through, there will be similar emotions to then," he said. "Special things can happen in the Champions League and I am confident we can go through."

Should Chelsea fail, they would be the first holders of the Champions League in 20 years to then go to the Club World Cup, hosted in Japan from later this week, having already been eliminated from Europe's principal club competition.

Benitez should still be their interim manager, and he will be returning to the competition where he won his last trophy as a coach, with Inter Milan, in Abu Dhabi in 2010.

He lost that job barely two weeks later. His first few weeks in coaching since then have been trying.


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