James Lawton: Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich surveys the rancour and hostility of a club at war with itself

Chelsea fans stood next to a placard saying “Rafa You’ll Always Walk Alone”

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 the dismissal of the hugely popular Jose Mourinho, had there had been a show of dissatisfaction quite like this.

Indeed, there was just one possibility that some of the worst of the taunting, and the waves of anger that poured down from the stands on to the head of Chelsea's new interim manager, might ease but it disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared.

Fernando Torres, the lost striker Benitez has promised to save, 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 – it seemed so strange to remember – used to have a reputation for extreme amiability.

But as Manchester City, the reigning champions who would have represented such a valuable scalp for the player's would-be redeemer, 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 – and reached a new level in the 16th minute, when the fallen Champions League-winning coach Roberto Di Matteo was loudly remembered.

This surge of protest was carefully synchronised to recall the sacked manager's No 16 jersey in his days as a Chelsea player, but for Benitez, as energetic as ever on his return to the touchline after his firing by Internazionale in 2010, could be under no illusion that it spoke of an animosity that runs deep and will plainly only be reduced by a steady diet of winning football.

But then Benitez knew precisely what he was facing when he agreed to step into the place of Di Matteo.

Certainly it was as bad, this first immersion into the current maelstrom of Chelsea affairs, as he 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".

Before kick-off the boos were so intense that it was only the announcement of the saddest news – the death of the great and conspicuously decent former Chelsea manager Dave Sexton – that brought a pause.

Sexton, the son of a boxing champion, was also a notably hard man and it's a reasonable guess that in most other circumstances he would have been happy enough to intervene in the hounding of one man by an extremely large and, it seemed, an entirely unforgiving crowd.

Sexton, who won Chelsea's first FA Cup and European title, might have argued that Benitez was just another football man plying his trade, trying to find a place where his theories might work. Yesterday, though, was no time for the careful measuring of rights and wrongs – and fair play – at Stamford Bridge.

It was an occasion when there was just too much raw feeling in the air for such moments of reflection. It was one 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. He has known the sublime and the wretched days but the fact is there was no easy category in which to place this one.

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.

Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower