x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rafael Benitez closing in on vindication with Chelsea after Old Trafford triumph

A 1-0 victory at Manchester United has boosted the London club's hopes of a top-four finish, writes Richard Jolly.

Juan Mata, second right, celebrates Chelsea's winner against Manchester United.
Juan Mata, second right, celebrates Chelsea's winner against Manchester United.

Rafa Benitez has never been the most demonstrative of men.

There is something slightly awkward about Chelsea's interim manager when he tries to show affection or gratitude, so Juan Mata had to make do with a pat on the head. He had earned it, and more, and not just with a winner at Old Trafford.

As one Spaniard enhanced his CV, taking Chelsea closer to Uefa Champions League football and rendering himself more attractive to potential employers, another illustrated why he is the season's unappreciated gem.

Mata only polled two per cent of the votes for the PFA Footballer of the Year award. He has contributed 25 assists and 19 goals - although the latest could be debited to Phil Jones - in all competitions, giving statistical support to the evidence his elegance offers the naked eye. He is a classy player who makes crucial contributions.

"He could be player of the year for everything he did for us," Benitez said. "He is a very influential player."

And few have been more significant for Chelsea. Three points clear of Tottenham Hotspur with three games to go, they meet Spurs on Wednesday. Win again and a top-four finish is all but assured. For Benitez, victory has taken him tantalisingly close to vindication.

Maligned and mocked, the man Old Trafford delights in dismissing as "a fat Spanish waiter" has steered Chelsea through a crowded fixture list with inimitable attention to detail.

In a sense, they have acquired a second wind. In another, they never lost the first one. They have simply kept going, on and on and on.

Not everyone shares Benitez's obstinate belief in his methods, yet obsessive micro-management has its benefits. His squad rotation has helped Chelsea get this far. They have entered eight competitions, played in 10 countries and completed 65 games.

There are four more to go but, lest they contemplate a relaxing summer, the club have then arranged a post-season tour of the United States.

Should Benfica be beaten in the Europa League final, they can cross the Atlantic with silverware as well as a modicum of success in England.

While players such as Mata have evident ability, their powers of endurance are remarkable; they are finishing the season stronger than sides who have played 20 fewer games.

While United rested four regulars, their overworked Chelsea counterparts nonetheless seemed stronger.

A late winner was symbolic for a side who have rallied in the closing stages of the season. A later red card was typical of the controversial clashes between these two clubs.

So, too, was the identity of the Chelsea played felled by the expelled Rafael da Silva. While John Terry was an unused substitute for the second successive game, David Luiz has become ubiquitous. The main man is being marginalised. The Brazilian has taken off as the defensive totem, despite his idiosyncratic interpretation of a centre-back's duties.

He can materialise on the right wing in open play, something Terry rarely did at his barnstorming peak, let alone recently. He is fast gaining admirers, even if Ferguson is not among them.

Reduced to 10 men, they were defeated by Chelsea for a third time this season. The Blues had won at Stamford Bridge in both domestic cup competitions.

Yet Manchester United's solitary win was the decisive encounter, October's 3-2 league victory at Stamford Bridge. Had they lost, they would have been seven points behind the Blues. Instead, they are 17 clear of them.

Nonetheless, there was bickering between the two sets of supporters to liven up the atmosphere.

"Champions of Europe," came the chant from the travelling supporters.

"You're not anymore," replied the Stretford End, conscious that Chelsea were eliminated from the Uefa Champions League in the group stages in December.

They are, however, in the final of the lesser continental competition and the Londoners responded with a chorus of: "One team in Europe."

Given English teams' record against Spain, Italy and Germany's finest this season, none really have much to boast about.

Yet if they are arguing over degrees of failure, Benitez is strangely close to being a success.

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