Unwanted at the Bridge but Benitez will still depart a winner
Spaniard will take heart from having enhanced his own reputation
Chelsea’s manager Rafael Benitez will walk away a winner. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
The longest season has its tangible reward. Chelsea’s campaign has taken in 68 matches in 11 different countries and eight competitions, a schedule overseen by two managers and, when Branislav Ivanovic nodded in a stoppage-time winner here, has finally yielded a trophy. Rafael Benitez, hands sunk into his pockets before the final whistle brought an outpouring of joy as he hugged his coaching staff, has his reward.
After all the near-misses this season the Londoners have joined Ajax, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich as a club whose honours board boasts all three major Uefa trophies.
Benitez will find himself at another crossroads in a few weeks’ time. Any aspirations he had of earning a longer-term deal when accepting the interim position back in November were effectively kiboshed by the scorching reception afforded him in those opening weeks by the Londoners’ support. The antipathy has subsided to mere grumbling mutiny, if only because those in the stands have been resigned to the Spaniard seeing out his contract ever since the club had a knee-jerk reaction to the manager’s infamous outburst at Middlesbrough back in February.
The Spaniard has pointed to the imbalanced squad he had inherited from his predecessor which was very much in mid-transition. Chelsea had overloaded on creative midfielders, all mouth-watering talents but each set upon scuttling runs up-field with little regard for the acres they left unguarded at the back. They had only Torres up front, a player whose form had been so flimsy but whose goal just before the hour-mark in Amsterdam reflected a recent recovery, certainly in this competition.
Benitez wanted to add more than just Demba Ba to the ranks in January. He had craved a central midfielder, too. Yet he ploughed on regardless as the schedule became ever more cluttered.
Benfica exposed the limitations within the set-up with their fluid, attacking movement here. They mustered almost twice as many passes in the first half as the Premier League team, with Nicolas Gaitan, Rodrigo, Enzo Perez and Eduardo Salvio gliding beyond blue-shirted markers far too easily at times. Chelsea can labour in central midfield when the ball buzzes around them at pace, and at the back when slippery opponents strike an upbeat rhythm.
Benitez ha said on the eve of this fixture: “We have done a good job here in difficult circumstances, a team in transition and not the deepest squad, so you have to give credit to the staff and players.”
They will still never show proper gratitude, but the cold-hearted professional in Benitez probably no longer expects them to. He will take heart, instead, from having enhanced his own reputation within the game from this team’s recovery.
A top three finish – victory over Everton on Sunday will guarantee that – represents real progress on last term’s sixth place, as well as the accomplishment of his principal mission. The sceptics will point to the fact Chelsea were third and only four points from the top when he took over, but that overlooks the trajectory the team were on at the time.
Roberto Di Matteo may have won a European Cup six months earlier but his team had shipped 21 goals in nine matches, had failed to win in four league games, and the management were showing no signs of restoring on-field discipline. Benitez did at least achieve that. He has claimed credit for the progression of Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta in their respective national sides and this side have progressed under his stewardship and they clearly retain that dogged refusal to wilt.
“We have improved a lot as a team,” Ivanovic had said. “It is not easy taking over at a club like Chelsea mid-season . . . Win this trophy and you have to say he has done a good job.”
His towering header from Juan Mata’s corner has ensured just that. Benitez will depart a winner.