Even Abramovich thinks Torres should do better
Benitez has been briefed by the Chelsea owner to win with style but reigniting the spark of his old Liverpool striker will also be top of the new manager's to-do list
Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end," Alice was told by the King while in Wonderland. So in the wonderful world of Chelsea, which Lewis Carroll could have had some fun with, Rafa Benitez begins against the Premier League champions, of all people, this afternoon, having the advantage over several predecessors in knowing in his own mind that the end is likely to come in precisely seven months' time.
He even accepts, he said at the training ground on Friday, that he could win three trophies – only one more than Roberto Di Matteo after all – and find Chelsea still engaging another manager. What must he do in the meantime to please Roman Abramovich, that most demanding of owners?
"He told me, and I was talking with [technical director] Michael Emenalo before that, he wants to win and he wants to do it well, playing in style. But he's not desperate in terms of we have to play Barcelona style. He wants to play well. He wants to enjoy watching games. The way to enjoy is to see your team winning, and attacking and creating chances. The way that we create chances could be passing the ball or with a long ball. It's just to see his team with this attacking mentality and creating chances."
Ideally it would be not a long ball – hardly the strength of a Hazard-Oscar-Mata midfield – but a through ball such as used to be delivered on a plate at Liverpool for Fernando Torres to devour. Benitez might like to believe it was his CV that attracted Abramovich, alone of any major club owner in the past two years, but his signing of, and success with, Torres was surely as important as anything.
Reluctant for much of his two hours with the media at the end of the week to talk about Torres, Benitez finally opened up towards the end, even admitting that over dinner on Thursday night Abramovich agreed improvement was necessary: "Obviously I cannot say that we were not talking about Torres. They can see that he has to improve. Everybody can see that he can improve because he has the potential. With Fernando you have to put your arm around the shoulder and push him. Both things.
"My job now is to find out why he is not scoring as many goals as he was at Liverpool. I have my ideas, I was talking with him. But my job, and the way I like to work, is to go to Ashley Cole and say, what can we improve? This, this, this. What do you have? Keep those things. I like to do the same with everyone. Torres will be one of them. We are not stupid. We know he is a very important player. So we will try to improve Fernando, and try to improve the other players, and we will try to keep the good things that they have. That is our job."
Intriguingly, Benitez revealed that Eden Hazard could have been a player laying on the chances for Torres at Liverpool – Lille wanted too much money at the time for a teenager – which leads him to believe the gifted little Belgian can do so now. "If you have players with quality it will be easy for them to play together," he says. "Hazard was playing on the left and on the right. Now it would be everywhere because he was a fantastic player for Lille. But if they are together, I think it will be easier for them."
There will be a first chance to find out this afternoon, since the new man is hardly likely to replicate his immediate predecessor's brave and principled mistake of omitting the out-of-form Torres. The pale shadow of a Spaniard who once tormented Manchester United on their own pitch will be deployed in the hope that a manager who genuinely believes in him can be rewarded with a tonic that both men need; Benitez, whether he decides to risk a formal bow to Chelsea supporters before kick-off or not, begins with the sort of approval rating that would worry even Nick Clegg and says: "If you start [against] a very good team and win, it can be good for confidence."
Roberto Mancini, who has revealed that he might have bought Torres but went for the cheaper Edin Dzeko instead, could say the same, of course. City, too, could do with a tonic after a week in Europe worse than Chelsea's as it left them without even a mathematical chance of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Champions' League.
The 3-5-2 formation initially used against Real Madrid on Wednesday was hastily abandoned and, as Pablo Zabaleta suggested after being switched from part of a back three to left-back, the team were immediately more comfortable.
Javi Garcia, brought on at half-time, added some solidity, and even if Dzeko has to revert to the role he loathes as an impact substitute, today's team and formation seem certain to resemble the one that finished Wednesday's draw.
Apart from anything else, using three defenders against teams like Madrid and Chelsea, who play with one striker, is excessive; and some might say (the Gallagher brothers among them) that when that striker is Torres in his current form, two is more than sufficient. Mancini would nonetheless want one of them to be Vincent Kompany. His captain's participation is subject to a fitness test this morning.
Benitez believes Chelsea are as strong as the two Manchester clubs, although he rather undermined his own argument by pointing to the latter's rich attacking options, Dzeko included. But clearly his own confidence remains undiminished. This is, after all, a man who at the age of 26 told his disbelieving wife: "I will win the Champions' League". Just under 20 years later the miracle of Istanbul occurred and he was in a Wonderland of his own.
Manchester City v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
Herbert to keep up pressure
Peter Herbert and the Society for Black Lawyers will keep up the pressure on the FA and clubs this week by seeking a meeting with a senior Metropolitan Police officer to combat anti-Semitic abuse at some London grounds. Herbert, the society's chairman, last night alleged that some fans of Arsenal, Chelsea, Millwall, West Ham and Tottenham are offenders, although he agreed that Spurs supporters were the victims of "appalling events in Rome" at the Europa League game against Lazio on Thursday.
The society regards the Mark Clattenburg case as closed after the referee was cleared of racial abuse.
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