A year from now, Rafa Benitez can look forward to his unveiling at Santiago Bernabeu as the replacement for Carlo Ancelotti. The Real Madrid job is the reward for former Champions League-winning managers discarded by Chelsea. Absurd? Well, no more so than judging on the basis of one game a Stamford Bridge posting that began only in November.
Yes, that was the hand dealt Benitez at the Amsterdam Arena, par for the course in an epoch that permits minute-by-minute revisions of reputations. The testimony of present and former players attesting to the stuff that should matter, his coaching credentials, carried no weight. It was all or nothing, win and he would be a success, lose and a duffer.
Were David Luiz in power, Benitez would be going nowhere next week. The flamboyant Brazilian, caught somewhere between centre-half and playmaker in former regimes, has stabilised impressively under Benitez. Fernando Torres, a lost cause before Rafa turned up, is a more productive force since his arrival, and didn’t he show that, with a goal redolent of his Liverpool best.
Former pupils like Craig Bellamy are quick to credit Benitez when asked to volunteer a name that helped them most. On the negative side of the ledger Xabi Alonso might not have been in such a rush to move to Real Madrid had his relationship with Benitez been more productive. You can’t please everybody.
Benitez assumed control of a team that finished last season sixth in the Premier League. The previous incumbent, Roberto Di Matteo, was dumped with Chelsea on the brink of Champions League elimination, presumably over concerns that they might fail to qualify for next season’s competition. Benitez did his job on that score, managing a testing run-in while progressing to the final against Benfica.
There were aberrations. The surrender of two goals in a mad minute at Reading in January looked like it might be rewarded with a downturned thumb from Roman. Defeat to 10-man Swansea in the semi-final of the Capital One Cup was also troubling. But there have been highlights, too, like the wins against Manchester United in the league at Old Trafford and in the FA Cup.
Here is a coach who twice rammed a wedge between Barcelona and Real Madrid with two La Liga titles plus a Uefa Cup victory; who took Liverpool to two Champions League finals, one successfully; and came within a point of denying a dominant United the championship before the American ownership model of Tom Hicks and George Gillett sucked the life out of the club after acquiring it in 2006.
Given the difficulty involved in taking over a squad on temporary terms in mid-season; in managing the fallout after the inevitable Champions League exit and lifting morale; in dealing with the irrational hatred and personal insults issuing daily from supporters and the unfavourable working environment it created, lesser figures might have crumbled.
When his tolerance did give way after the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough in February, his attack on the critics and the Chelsea hierarchy had a measured, strategic feel about it which brought a degree of calm and even grudging respect. From that moment Benitez wrenched back some control and was managing more in his terms.
The result has been greater consistency, which has all but secured Champions League football next season and earned a place in a second successive European final. His less rabid detractors in the bars around Amsterdam yesterday were at least prepared to acknowledge that.
The loss of his best defender, John Terry, and his most dynamic midfielder, Eden Hazard, set Benitez a puzzle. The coaching response was to counter-attack, deploying Ramires in an advanced position and to couple Luiz and Frank Lampard in front of the back four.
The tactic meant Benfica saw a lot of the ball in the opening half, causing discomfort at times, panic once or twice but without creating a clear-cut chance. The best chance of the first half fell to Lampard, who found space on the edge of the box and hit a waspish drive that swerved late to bring an impressive save from Artur.
Relief would have been the dominant sentiment at half-time. Benfica were clearly the better side, but Benitez had been here before, persuading Liverpool that a Champions League miracle was possible in Istanbul eight years ago when his team came in 3-0 down to Milan at the interval.
And it was not as if chasing shadows was a losing phenomenon last year when Chelsea were run ragged by Barcelona and Bayern Munich before finding a way to win the European Cup for the first time. What might have been a pasting on each occasion was re-interpreted as a courageous defensive display on which success was eventually built.
Whatever he said during the break worked. Chelsea appeared a yard quicker, closing down space in the middle of the park and striking with more purpose. This is surely the mark of a good coach, to make a difference when it matters. There weren’t many complaints as Torres held off Luisao, rounded Artur and ripped the back of the net with a raking strike.
The lead lasted eight minutes, Cesar Azpilicueta foolishly handling in the box to concede a penalty. The fault of Benitez for picking him, of course. And then up pops Branislav Ivanovic to land the old interim one-two.
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