x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Roman Abramovich has handed Rafa Benitez an impossible mission

The Spanish manager has a tactical style at odds with the desires of the Chelsea owner, Richard Jolly can see trouble ahead.

Chelsea's manager Rafael Benitez, center, watches his team play against Manchester City's during their English Premier League soccer match at Stamford Bridge, London, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan) *** Local Caption *** Britain Soccer Premier League.JPEG-08613.jpg
Chelsea's manager Rafael Benitez, center, watches his team play against Manchester City's during their English Premier League soccer match at Stamford Bridge, London, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan) *** Local Caption *** Britain Soccer Premier League.JPEG-08613.jpg

It is understandable that Roman Abramovich and Rafa Benitez have been portrayed as the odd couple, but these seemingly incompatible individuals may have more in common than many realised.

Chelsea's Russian owner rarely listens to the voices of reason while their Spanish manager, it appears, hardly hears anything at all.

Perhaps Benitez was being diplomatic when he claimed ignorance of the vitriolic soundtrack to his Stamford Bridge debut.

Perhaps, given his famously obsessive attention to detail, he really was concentrating on events on the pitch.

Whichever, the issue is not actually about whether Benitez requires a hearing aid. It is a question of if he can ever be accepted, if he can be tolerated, let alone liked at Stamford Bridge.

It is whether his appointment is the greatest footballing mismatch since, well, Chelsea and Andre Villas-Boas and if Abramovich is discovering the limits of his own power.

Because, in his 10-season reign at Stamford Bridge, there has been little direct dissent.

Abramovich's ownership equates to a Faustian pact the Chelsea supporters have made, trading their right to protest for untold investment and unprecedented success.

Some were aghast when Jose Mourinho was dismissed but they did not rise against Abramovich. There was barely a murmur when the popular, dignified Carlo Ancelotti lost his job.

So the choruses of Roberto di Matteo's name were significant. So, too, the chants aimed at Benitez.

The Spaniard repeated his new mantra that winning games and trophies will win over the fans but a lightning rod for opposition rarely effects a transformation into a crowd favourite and Sunday's meeting with Manchester City was the closest Chelsea have come to a mutiny in the Abramovich autocracy.

Benitez begins without a mandate - Chelsea's chosen phrase of "interim manager" is hardly a vote of confidence - or a chance to shape his squad.

While he is tasked with turning back the clock in the career of Fernando Torres to the time when his fellow Spaniard was the world's sharpest striker, his initial achievement was to press the rewind button on the Premier League title race.

Recent meetings of the elite have produced surreal scorelines such as 8-2, 1-6, 3-5, 5-2 but at a stroke, the division was transported back to a tighter, more tactical age.

Strategists like Benitez and Roberto Mancini may have enjoyed Sunday's stalemate more than the millions who tuned in looking for entertainment.

As Benitez is aware, even if Abramovich is not, there is a balance between attack and defence.

Di Matteo obeyed the owner's instructions, urged his team onwards and saw them concede.

Benitez pressed Juan Mata and Oscar into service shielding the defence but in a trade off where the cost could be measured in a loss of creativity.

City provided an instructive comparison on the flanks; not so much the class act, David Silva, that Benitez long dreamt of taking to Liverpool, but the unselfish worker, in James Milner, whose defensive diligence is reminiscent of some of his Anfield charges.

The feeling persists that while Abramovich's new-look Chelsea are shaped by the three musketeers, that is at least one too many for Benitez's liking.

If he can win the Champions League with Djimi Traore, Milan Baros and Harry Kewell, lifting the Premier League with Oscar, Mata and Eden Hazard scarcely seems impossible. Yet for Benitez, it is about tactics as much as talent.

Moreover, knockout competitions have a different dynamic as Liverpool and Chelsea, given their improbable paths to European glory in 2005 and 2012 respectively, can testify.

Benitez's record of winning domestic titles dates back to his time in his homeland.

That Valencia lifted the Primera Liga in 2002 while scoring a mere 51 goals in their 38 games is the sort of detail that would give Abramovich another reason to step up his pursuit of the more attacking Pep Guardiola. It has a relevance for Chelsea, however. That Benitez sides lacked a prolific striker. So, sadly, does this.

Appointing Benitez may be the final throw of the dice as far as Torres is concerned. The departure of Didier Drogba, and the removal of the rather compelling reasons to select the Ivorian, has not done the trick.

So until and unless Abramovich signs another sizeable cheque for a striker, Benitez finds himself with a new twist on a problem from his Valencia days: how to find a way to win without a potent forward.

Di Matteo's answer, proscribed by Abramovich, involved giving his flair players freedom and exposing his defence. The more obstinate Benitez's solution is likely to be less risky tactically but more of a threat personally.

It is why Abramovich and Benitez make for an unlikely alliance. Rendering Chelsea less watchable has its dangers even without the unique backdrop. Of the seven managers to win the Champions League in the past decade, Abramovich has axed three, in Mourinho, Ancelotti and Di Matteo, while their fans are rejecting a fourth, in Benitez.

Either side of his two-year sabbatical, he has gone from Inter Milan to interim manager.

With rebellious supporters and a trigger-happy owner, everything is stacked against Benitez.

Become established in the affections of both and succeed on the pitch and events in Istanbul might be demoted to second place in his considerable list of triumphs.


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