x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Memories serve up hot reception for Rafa Benitez at Chelsea

Greeted with boos, Rafa Benitez's boring tactics will not help Chelsea fans forget his past comments, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Chelsea supporters hang a banner at the former Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez’s first game as interim manager of Chelsea in the match at Stamford Bridge against Manchester City.
Chelsea supporters hang a banner at the former Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez’s first game as interim manager of Chelsea in the match at Stamford Bridge against Manchester City.

What exactly does Roman Abramovich want? In the nine years since he became the owner of Chelsea, he has never given an interview but the received wisdom has been that he wanted attacking, entertaining football, yet as soon as he got thrills and spills and short passing football, he got rid of Roberto Di Matteo, the manager who had brought him both elan and the Champions League.

If Abramovich really does want attacking football, he has appointed the wrong man.

Rafa Benitez's Valencia and Liverpool sides were capable of playing with dash but his instincts are conservative.

Even after one game, it seems that Benitez has brought the boring back.

After 10 games without a clean sheet, Chelsea looked extremely sound defensively in their 0-0 draw with Manchester City.

Although there was nothing startling about Benitez's selection, there was the odd tactical tweak.

Mikel John Obi and Ramires barely stirred from their positions just on front of the back four, while Eden Hazard spent much more time in the centre of the creative trident than usual, with Oscar switching left, presumably because the Brazilian's willingness to track made him a better option for checking the forward surges of the City right-back Pablo Zabaleta.

That was the positive; the negative was that this was the first time this season Chelsea had failed to score at home, and they managed just one shot on target in the whole game.

Against the champions and the team who began the weekend at the top of the Premier League, perhaps that is understandable, but if the drab football continues, it is not going to make it any easier for Benitez to win over fans already inclined to scepticism because of his criticism of the club while the manager of Liverpool.

There had been talk of boycotts and, while they didnot materialise, there could be no doubting the depth of the antipathy towards the man described in the programme as "interim first-team manager".

There were banners thanking Di Matteo and the former manager's name was sung as Chelsea came onto the pitch.

When Benitez emerged a few seconds later, Stamford Bridge erupted in a cacophony of booing that ended only for the minute's applause for the former the Chelsea manager Dave Sexton, who died yesterday.

The message was reiterated once the game had started, the Matthew Harding Stand uniting in a chorus of "Benitez, we don't want you here".

As the clock reached 16, the shirt number Di Matteo wore as Chelsea player, there was another outburst of applause and chanting of his name.

Through it all, Abramovich sat inscrutably, huddled deep in his padded Champions League coat, a vague smile on his face.

Benitez, fortunately, is a man of implacable self-belief.

Even the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho can occasionally be rattled by questioning in pressconferences.

Benitez is so convinced in himself and his method that he glides serenely through.

That is why he waited two years for the right opportunity to come along.

Others might have felt pressured into accepting a job from a club lower down the pyramid but Benitez always had faith that a top side would eventually turn to him.

He is sensitive enough that the abuse will hurt him, but it is unlikely to have any impact on his self-belief or decisionmaking.

What would be extremely handy would be if he could instil some of that belief in Fernando Torres.

Benitez has been billed as some kind of Torres whisperer, capable of coaxing the forward back to form but there was little sign of that yesterday.

His lack of confidence is palpable, and he snatched at the one chance to come his way, blazing an Hazard flick over the bar.

"Rafa is not a magician," said the City boss Roberto Mancini. "He can't change everything in a day."

The defence already looks better, but Torres is a work in progress. Winning over the fans will be an even harder task.