James Lawton: Rafa is alone in the storm of a club at war with itself

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The Independent Online

If ever a football man needed to hear a friendly voice, or feel the warmth of a moment's grace, it was surely Rafa Benitez here when even the cold of the enveloping night seemed to be reserved expressly for him.

Yet wherever he looked he saw the face of hostility, the terrible sense of a football crowd made angry by its belief that some of its deepest passions and most eagerly embraced alliances had been simply tossed aside.

Even the normally inscrutable owner of all he surveys, Roman Abramovich, seemed at least briefly shaken by the force of the reaction when his new coach appeared.

All these years he has been doing pretty much as he pleased at Chelsea – and why not? He owns the place in that way that makes the yearnings of fans and their sense of propriety so easily shot down into the smallest pieces. However, never before in all the firings, and even in the dismissal of the hugely popular Jose Mourinho, had there had been a show of dissatisfaction like this.

There was just one possibility that some of the worst of the taunting might ease but it disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared.

Fernando Torres emerged from another nightmarish performance with one glowing chance in the second half on a day that was arguably the most bitter in the history of a club which used to have a reputation for extreme amiability.

But as Manchester City fell back on their goal, Torres lashed a left-foot shot over the bar.

A moment of precision, maybe some early evidence that Benitez might indeed revive the £50m man who has been such of a source of accumulating embarrassment for Abramovich, would certainly have deflected a little of the rage that filled the ground.

Certainly it was as bad, this first immersion into the current maelstrom of Chelsea affairs, as Benitez could have imagined when he agreed to become arguably one of the most embattled interim managers football has ever seen.

What he found was a raw distaste, if not hatred. It seeped through the afternoon and into the evening. One queue of Chelsea fans waited to be photographed beside a large placard which announced "Rafa You'll Always Walk Alone".

It was an occasion that might just have been soothed a little by a more convincing Chelsea performance but Benitez must always have suspected that this was a day not to conquer but to survive.

His hopes for conquest improved somewhat in the second half but there were times when his manner was touched with desperation. It was not so hard to understand even in a man of Benitez's wide range of experience. There was no easy category in which to place this.

It was not so much about him, when you thought about it, but the powerful sense that, for a little while at least, a huge football club had been virtually cut in two.