Hung out to dry: Chelsea rule out banning anti-Rafael Benitez banners for West Brom match
Club aim to keep Spaniard in place until end of season but bitter atmosphere guaranteed at Bridge on Saturday
Chelsea have decided not to confiscate supporters' anti-Rafa Benitez banners brought to Saturday's Premier League home game against West Bromwich Albion, which promises to be yet another combustible occasion as feelings run high among fans.
The club board opted to back Benitez following his outspoken criticism on Wednesday night of its decision to give him the title "interim", as well as his first serious broadside back against the supporters who have called for him to be sacked.
For the game on Saturday, the club will only confiscate banners which they judge to be obscene or discriminatory, as well as those which are so big they require a fire certificate under health and safety regulations. Otherwise, the club will follow a policy that they permit "fair criticism" of the club, and allow supporters to make public their opinions.
There have been claims from supporters that banners were removed at home games last month, although the club say that was a question of safety rather than a move against anti-Benitez sentiments. The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge is expected to be as hostile as ever following Benitez's claim, in the aftermath of Chelsea's FA Cup victory against Middlesbrough, that there was an "agenda" against him that was damaging the team's prospects.
In spite of Benitez's claim that the club made a "massive mistake" when they gave him the title "interim manager", and claiming it was because of a fear of fans' reaction over his Liverpool past, there was said to be no appetite at the club to sack him.
The prevailing mood among the senior officials, chairman Bruce Buck, chief executive Ron Gourlay and technical director Michael Emenalo, right up to owner Roman Abramovich, was that Benitez had been placed under great strain by the abuse he has suffered since taking over the club.
The club believe that, contrary to the final days of Benitez's two immediate predecessors, Roberto Di Matteo and Andre Villas-Boas, the team is making strides in terms of performances. While the results, seven points in the league from the last six games, have not been as good as hoped, the club do not believe that, with the team in fourth in the Premier League, two points behind Tottenham, the situation is dire.
As a consequence there are no immediate plans to replace him although, as ever with Chelsea, that could yet change. The club are prepared for a difficult afternoon on Saturday with their former player and assistant manager Steve Clarke likely to get a much warmer reception in the away dugout.
As for Benitez's suggestion that the title "interim manager" was forced upon him and his Spanish agent and advisers without their knowledge, the club say in private that was not the case. All parties were aware of the situation when they embarked on what has been a rocky three months since Di Matteo's sacking after defeat to Juventus in Turin.
In a BBC interview to be broadcast on Saturday, Benitez says he gets on well with Abramovich. "My relationship with the owner is really good," Benitez said. "Every time I talk to Abramovich about football, I enjoy [it]. We talk like normal people. We share a passion for football. He wants to win.
"I have conversations with Michael Emenalo every single day. He watches the training sessions, we talk about football. My relationship with the staff, the people at Cobham, is really good, fantastic," Benitez added. "The players are fully behind our ideas."
Tim Rolls, who is the interim chairman of the newly formed Chelsea Supporters' Trust, said that it was not the case, as Benitez said, that just a part of the club's support are against him. "For him to suggest a small minority want him out – it may be a small minority who bring in banners but not a small minority who think he shouldn't be manager of the club."
There is a growing feeling at the club that, as well as Frank Lampard leaving this summer, John Terry may also be sold if the club can do a deal for their captain. Terry, 32, who has struggled all season with injury, has one year left on his contract after the summer. He has long been perceived as a political force at the club, but his and Lampard's influence has been on the wane for some time.
Benitez will hold his Friday press conference as planned today at the club's training ground ahead of Saturday's game. Clarke said that he did not see "a lot wrong" with what Benitez had said. "I think by and large we are all interim," he said. "Someone is going to come and take your position at some stage."
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Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo were both sacked by Chelsea shortly after defeats against West Bromwich – Chelsea's visitors on Saturday. AVB left the day after a 1-0 Hawthorns defeat last March, while Di Matteo departed days after a 2-1 loss in November. Jose Mourinho also had trouble against West Bromwich, becoming involved in a touchline row with Bryan Robson during a league match in 2006.
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