Rafael Benitez increasingly bears the look of a man who must borrow some more borrowed time. It always seemed what his Chelsea career would live on, barring a miracle. But there has not been one.
Bad managerial appointments (and dismissals) can take football clubs generations to recover from (see Aston Villa). Benitez is not so much bad as wrong, a coach with an encyclopaedic knowledge of formations but with no way to chisel through the hearts of the Chelsea support. Chelsea need surgery but it is unlikely to be on Benitez's watch, not with the defeats accumulating (three wins from their last 10 games) after Saturday's setback at Newcastle.
Ashley Cole was done for pace in a one-on-one with Moussa Sissoko at St James's Park. He was supposed to be quick. John Terry was nowhere for Jonas Gutierrez's headed opening goal. He was supposed to be impregnable in the air. Frank Lampard scored a brilliant goal, but twice at the end of the game, as the sands of time slipped through the fingers of the visitors, the midfielder made bad choices and with each Benitez turned and looked to the sky with frustration.
Bad choices. It will be the theme for this season at Stamford Bridge regardless because there is no Champions League to get a faltering football club out of jail. This season is already a failure and we have only just started February. Another year of domestic failure. The kind of results Roman Abramovich does not accept.
Of the nine men to take control of Chelsea (excluding Ray Wilkins's one game) under Abramovich, Benitez's win ratio is the worst, at just 47 per cent. Andre Villas Boas went on 48 per cent, Avram Grant found the end at 67 per cent and Felipe Scolari was pushed fairly emphatically at 56 per cent.
Benitez could offer his usual response to a question about Lampard with a familiar "I'm here to talk about football" but the joke isn't funny any more. Not for the best part of 3,000 Chelsea fans who headed north and saw another disjointed display. Slick at times, domineering at times, unsteady at times, fragile at times: Chelsea under Benitez. The chant "We don't care about Rafa, he don't care about us" swings from ironic to vitriolic with frightening speed.
Having come from 1-0 down to 2-1 up (through Lampard and the excellent Juan Mata), Chelsea lacked the tactical nous to close the game out. If Benitez cannot bring them that, nor ignite the flickering flame of Fernando Torres, on the bench until Demba Ba got his nose broken by the boot of former team-mate Fabricio Coloccini, then he has nothing to bring to the table.
It is a table waiting for applicants.
Pep Guardiola will not be manager of Chelsea next season. Benitez will not be manager of Chelsea next season. Who, then? Gus Poyet, Jose Mourinho, David Moyes, Michael Laudrup, Guus Hiddink. That is the bookmaker's list, in order. Mourinho won two titles in succession at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea may finish outside the top four for the second successive season. There will be no European victory to take them back into the Champions League if Benitez cannot even land that.
It is a slow race for third place. Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Spurs are inconsistent. Chelsea are 19 points off the title. That would never have happened under Mourinho, whose affair – it has never been love – in Madrid faltered once more on Saturday evening with another defeat, against Granada, that left them 15 points behind Barcelona, having played two more games.
His lot has never seemed higher at Chelsea, in direct contrast to Benitez.An interim manager indeed.
Goals: Newcastle Gutierrez 41, Sissoko 68, 90. Chelsea Lampard 55, Mata 61. Substitutions: Newcastle Marveaux (Gouffran, 85), Yanga-Mbiwa (Sissoko, 90+2). Chelsea Torres 6 (Ba, 42). Bookings: Newcastle Perch, Cisse. Chelsea Ramires, Cole, Mata. Man of the match Sissoko. Match rating 8/10. Possession: Newcastle 46%. Chelsea 54%. Attempts on target: Newcastle 11. Chelsea 5. Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire). Attendance 52,314.
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