The image of the beleaguered Rafael Benitez, booed and vilified by Chelsea’s supporters, is a world apart from the smiling Spaniard who was quipping his way through his post-match press conference at Villa Park on Saturday.
With his Chelsea side having just earned the 2-1 comeback victory that effectively makes it mission accomplished for the interim manager – another Champions League campaign virtually assured – Benitez had a look of understandable satisfaction on his face as he reflected with “pride” on the job done since replacing Roberto Di Matteo in November.
If he can add a victory in Wednesday’s Europa League final against Benfica, he will not only ensure Chelsea’s season of transition ends with a silver lining – but also boost his own future job prospects.
He certainly believes he has done a good job. “With these new players in a lot of competitions I think it’s a good achievement,” he said. “We played the final in the Club World Cup and now we are in another final and qualified for the Champions League.
“If you analyse carefully our squad – 20 players plus three keepers, some older players and some young players – to achieve what we have achieved is really good.
“I think it’s a big improvement,” he added, suggesting that he will leave the club in better health than when he joined. “I think so. They have more balance, more experience, [better] understanding. I think this team [with] two or three players can be contenders.”
In his own mind, it is an even bigger achievement given the unwelcoming environment he has found on matchdays at Stamford Bridge. “I remember in England some managers with hostility in the stands couldn’t cope,” he said. The results show that Benitez has not just coped but flourished, and he is hopeful his efforts have not gone unnoticed elsewhere, with his agent already “talking around”.
Newspaper reports at the weekend suggested interest from Manchester City, and that Benitez wishes to remain in England, be it to take on “a project” of “two, three years to build a team like we did in Liverpool” or “a top side with money”.
First, of course, comes Wednesday’s Amsterdam encounter with Benfica, a challenge Chelsea can focus on without any lingering worries over their league placing thanks to the two second-half goals from Frank Lampard that broke Bobby Tambling’s record goals’ tally for the club. While a special day for Lampard, who was even applauded off by the home supporters, it was anything but for John Terry who injured his left ankle and will miss the final on Wednesday as a consequence.
Eden Hazard’s pulled hamstring might prove a bigger setback to the final plans of Benitez, who said David Luiz had started on the bench owing to tonsillitis. Yet the manager is confident his squad can cope with what will be their 68th game of the season. “I don’t think fatigue will be a problem. To lose players like Terry, Hazard could be [difficult] but hopefully not because we have quality in the squad.” Benfica, whom Chelsea overcame in last season’s Champions league quarter-finals, were unbeaten in the Portuguese league until Saturday’s last-minute defeat by Porto, a result that cost them top spot to their opponents. “I know Benfica, I know the manager, I know the players, it’s a very good team,” said Benitez. “I was talking with [Benfica old boys] David Luiz and Ramires, about what they normally do. They are a very good team. It will be a tough, tough game.”
If they do, Benitez, a Uefa Cup winner with Valencia in 2004, would become only the second coach after Giovanni Trapattoni to win the competition with two different teams. Something else to put on his CV.