Chelsea suspect referee backlash may be result of Clattenburg affair

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The Independent Online

As Chelsea approach their Champions League reckoning against Nordsjaelland tomorrow night, there are so many aspects of the club's current condition that might offer cause for concern: the supporters' attitude towards Rafa Benitez; the flat-lining form of Fernando Torres; and the very real possibility that they could become the first defending champions of Europe eliminated in the group stages.

Yet as well as all these worries there is another cloud on the horizon that the club are uncertain how they can shift: a growing sense of gloom that the team are now reaping the effects of the bad will sown with referees over the Mark Clattenburg affair. It is a delicate situation, with no one at Chelsea suggesting that decisions are consciously being given against the club because of that episode with Clattenburg that ended in the Football Association deciding there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.

While paranoia about referees and the decisions of match officials is a common theme from the top to the bottom of the Premier League, it is indicative of how seriously Chelsea regard the situation with match officials that it is occupying minds at Stamford Bridge.

Just 13 days after the FA cleared Clattenburg, the club have adopted an unofficial policy of not criticising referees in post-match press conferences for fear of attracting allegations of bullying and intimidation when relations between them and the 16 Select Group officials are at their most fraught.

It was notable on Saturday that Benitez stopped short of saying anything that could have been construed as criticism of referee Martin Atkinson following the 3-1 defeat to West Ham. This was despite the reasonable expectation that he could have given a foul against Carlton Cole for the striker's challenge on Branislav Ivanovic for the Hammers' first goal.

Invited after the match to criticise Atkinson's decision to allow the goal to stand, Benitez simply said that it was "unlucky". There is a mood at the club that because of the allegations made against Clattenburg, and despite the FA's vindication of Chelsea's decision to make them, there is no scope to be seen as being critical.

Despite their current situation, the club are preparing already for at least two new signings next month, with an appetite to go for Radamel Falcao if that is the player they decide will make a critical difference to their season. The Atletico Madrid striker has a £41m buyout clause in his contract but that will not be regarded as an obstacle if signing him is identified as critical to the club's progress.

There are no current plans to bring Avram Grant on board as an adviser to Benitez, especially with the interim manager having such a clear idea of what his own playing style and approach will be.

As it stands, Benitez has been told that if he makes a success of the Chelsea job then it will be his in the long term. The club are still convinced that they made the right decision in moving out his predecessor Roberto Di Matteo when they did.

Chelsea face Nordsjaelland tomorrow and will progress to the knockout stages only if they win and Shakhtar Donetsk beat Juventus at home.