Rafa is right: no room for sentiment

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The Independent Online

In an attempt yesterday to illustrate his point about the inevitability of change at Chelsea, Rafa Benitez referred back to his days as a youth-team coach at Real Madrid when he would ask his young players if they had the ambition and drive to dislodge the "legends" who were playing in the first team.

He might have added that he too had ambitions of his own. It was never going to be enough for a man of Benitez's drive, determination, and undoubted talents, to coach the kids his whole life. His career has been a study in dusting himself down after a setback, and pushing on – through the smaller clubs such as Tenerife and Extremadura and on to Valencia, Liverpool, Internazionale and now Chelsea.

He was trying to say, as politely as possible, that there will be life after Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry et al. And, while that is a decision that had not ultimately been taken by Benitez, it is in keeping with his style.

Benitez is an arch-pragmatist. One who regards players as pieces on the board, pieces who can be cajoled and encouraged but who are also expendable. You get the impression that he grasps the sensitivity of Lampard's impending departure, but also is bemused by the emotions it provokes.

Yesterday, Benitez talked a great deal of sense. "I cannot speak about the past, but I can see the club is changing things for the future, thinking about being successful again," Benitez said. "You have to keep [evolving]. That means you have to keep bringing in good new players." Unfortunately, that rationale will be challenged by the fans who want Lampard to stay and the emotion that will erupt with every goal that takes him closer to Bobby Tambling's club record of 202.

If he scores goal No 194 tonight in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg against Swansea City, to go clear in second place in the all-time list, then Stamford Bridge will once again reverberate to the demands of "sign him up".

Lampard has been a huge figure in Chelsea's history, but there are two sides to this story. He is a big earner five months short of his 35th birthday. Injury started to catch up with him in the 2010-11 season (although not in the last campaign). He has to leave at some time and, while no one can say for sure when the right time is, the club made a bold early call this season to allow him to negotiate a pre-contract abroad this month.

Unfortunately for Benitez, he is the manager the fans never wanted; up against the player they love the most. Yet if Roberto Di Matteo were still in the manager's chair, he too would be forced to defend the club's line and usher Lampard to the door.

The hard-nosed aspect to the Spaniard's personality, however, is a characteristic he shares with the club and one that makes you think that perhaps they are more compatible than might have been assumed.