Rafael Benitez is right: Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole et al must learn there is no room for sentiment at Chelsea
Chelsea manager shares a hard-headed approach with owner Roman Abramovich and has the ruthless edge to clear out the Stamford Bridge 'legends'
In an attempt today to illustrate his point about the inevitability of change at Chelsea, Rafa Benitez referred back to his days as a youth-team coach at Real Madrid when he would ask his young players if they had the ambition and drive to dislodge the "legends" who were playing in the first team.
He might have added that he too had ambitions of his own. It was never going to be enough for a man of Benitez's drive, determination, and undoubted talents, to coach the kids his whole life – however important the job. His career has been a study in dusting himself down after a setback, and pushing on – through the smaller clubs such as Tenerife and Extremadura and on to Valencia, Liverpool, Internazionale and now Chelsea.
He was trying to say, as politely as possible, that there will be life after Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, John Terry et al. And while that is a decision that had not ultimately been taken by Benitez – he mentioned in his first week that Lampard's departure this summer was a fait accompli – it is in keeping with his style.
Benitez is, like many of his managerial contemporaries, an arch-pragmatist. One who regards players as pieces on the board, pieces who can be cajoled and encouraged but who are also expendable. You get the impression that he grasps the sensitivity of Lampard's impending departure, but also is bemused by the emotions it provokes.
Today, Benitez talked a great deal of sense. "I cannot speak about the past, but I can see the club is changing things for the future, thinking about being successful again," Benitez said. "It's not just: 'Oh, we won.' And that's it. You have to keep winning as much as you can. You have to keep [evolving]. That means you have to keep bringing in good new players."
Unfortunately, that rationale will be challenged by the supporters who want Lampard to stay and the emotion that will erupt with every goal that takes him closer to Bobby Tambling's club record of 202. If he scores goal No 194 tonight in the Capital One Cup semi-final first leg against Swansea City, to go clear in second place in the all-time list, then Stamford Bridge will once again reverberate to the demands of "Sign him up".
Lampard has been a huge figure in Chelsea's history – perhaps the club's greatest of all-time – but there are two sides to this story. He is a big earner five months short of his 35th birthday. Injury started to catch up with him in the 2010-11 season (although not in the last campaign). He has to leave at some time and, while no one can say for sure when the right time is, the club made a bold early call this season to allow him to negotiate a pre-contract abroad this month.
Unfortunately for Benitez, he is the manager the fans never wanted; up against the player they love the most. As a popularity contest it is more one-sided than the 8-0 win over Aston Villa. Yet if Roberto Di Matteo were still in the manager's chair, he too would be forced to defend the club's line and usher Lampard to the door.
Di Matteo did not integrate players such as Marko Marin and Lucas Piazon, who have been afforded greater prominence since Benitez's arrival. The plan seems to be that these players must be given the room to breathe and develop. While they cannot be regarded as front-line straight away, it will require the departure of the older generation to allow them truly to spread their wings.
It has not gone unnoticed that the winner of Fifa's 2012 goal of the year competition, announced at the Ballon d'Or gala, was the former Chelsea winger Miroslav Stoch, 23, who is now at Fenerbahçe. Stoch was in the first generation of teenage players recruited by former technical director Frank Arnesen. They found their path to the first team blocked and eventually had no choice but to move on.
"Every year you have to bring in someone else," Benitez said. "The English question is something you have to consider, but this year you have three or four players – [Eden] Hazard, Oscar, Piazon and Marko [Marin] who came last summer, and they will need some time. But maybe in the next couple of years we will be talking about these players as fantastic players.
"Then we will be talking about other players who need to come to the team [to put pressure on the new stars]. That is part of the evolution of the team."
At Liverpool, there were frustrations at the pace of change, which Benitez wanted to be swifter. At Chelsea, the pace of change is rapid and there is no doubting Roman Abramovich's determination to embrace a new era and to invest while also adjusting to the demands of Uefa financial fair play. Benitez will regard the highly competitive, extremely ambitious ownership as a good fit for him.
The hard-nosed aspect to his personality, however, is a characteristic he shares with the club and one that makes you think that perhaps they are more compatible than might have been assumed. As it stands, Benitez remains the interim first-team coach and his being installed long-term is not an eventuality many Chelsea fans wish to consider.
When it was put to him today that, in an ideal world, he would get longer, Benitez reminded everyone that "the world is not ideal for anyone". He added: "In Spain, 50 per cent of people under 25 do not have a job. Maybe they will never get a job. That is not an ideal world." It put a welcome perspective on the lives of millionaire footballers, and it came from a man who does tend to boil things down to basics.
Running out of time: Chelsea's old guard
Contract up next summer:
John Terry Signed in 1998, from youth system Chelsea games 552 Chelsea goals 50
Contracts up this summer:
Ashley Cole Signed in 2006, from Arsenal for £5m/player exchange Chelsea games 284 Chelsea goals 7
Frank Lampard Signed in 2001, from West Ham United for £11m Chelsea games 571 Chelsea goals 192
And not forgetting...
Paulo Ferreira Signed in 2004, from Porto for £13.2m Chelsea games 213 Chelsea goals 2
Florent Malouda Signed in 2007, from Lyons for £13.5m Chelsea games 220 Chelsea goals 45
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