Rafael Benítez leaves Chelsea with his reputation enhanced
It's hard to argue that Rafael Benítez didn’t make the most of his opportunity at Chelsea this season, writes Kieran Beckles
Rafael Benítez leaves Chelsea with his reputation enhanced after weathering a Stamford Bridge storm and leading the club to Europa League glory.
The 53-year-old was, to put it kindly, an unpopular choice when the Blues announced he would be succeeding Roberto Di Matteo as interim manager back in November.
Benítez helped culture an intense rivalry between Liverpool and Chelsea during his five-year Anfield reign as the two clubs battled frequently domestically and in Europe.
At his unveiling, the Spaniard was adamant he had something in common with his new flag-waving Chelsea supporters despite his chequered past relationship with the Blues: the desire to win every single game – and trophies.
And although Benítez doesn’t leave with a 100 per cent win record, he did mastermind the Blues’ first-ever Europa League triumph and a respectable third-place finish to secure another year of Champions League football.
And judging by the messages of support at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, the majority of Chelsea fans have warmed to the former Reds boss, perhaps comforted by the prospect of Jose Mourinho’s apparently imminent return.
Benítez, who in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, is obsessed with improving his CV, will add a third European trophy to his already glittering record but his short reign was success in other ways, too.
Andre Villas-Boas, and to a lesser extent Carlo Ancelotti, both attempted to ring the changes in their respective spells at the club – but the Portuguese coach in particular did so too rashly and fell victim to player power.
Perhaps this is best encapsulated by Villas-Boas’ decision to drop Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard for their Champions League second-round first-leg tie against Napoli in February 2012.
The Blues lost 3-1 and Villas-Boas was well and truly ostracised, with the Portugese coach sacked just 11 days later.
Benítez, aided by the knowledge his time at Chelsea would be brief, wielded the axe at Chelsea, not hesitating to bench Blues stalwarts Frank Lampard and John Terry.
In doing so, he was able to give Gary Cahill and David Luiz a consistent run in the first-team, with the former Bolton Wanderers skipper developing a promising partnership with Branislav Ivanović.
Luiz, who joined from Benfica during the Ancelotti reign, has been a revelation in midfield, with Benítez utilising the Brazil international’s boundless energy and flair to help Chelsea excel in the second half of the campaign.
“Thank you to him because he was an amazing coach,” said Luiz of Benítez. “Not just for the team but for me as well.
‘He taught me a lot because he is an experienced coach. He is a professional and he showed that all the time because some people spoke bad things about him and all the time he supported the pressure.”
Furthermore, Lampard’s spell on the bench appeared to rejuvenate the England international, who went on a thrilling run in 2013 and became the club’s record goal-scorer with 203 strikes.
Another man who has started to find the net with reassuring frequency is Fernando Torres.
Benítez brought the former Atletico Madrid captain to the Premier League in 2007 and was in charge at Anfield for the majority of the Spaniard’s 65 top-flight goals (which came in 102 games).
Whilst the ex-Liverpool boss was unable to coax Torres back into his prolific Liverpool form, the 29-year-old netted 13 of his 23 goals this season with Benítez at the Blues helm, which is a minor triumph in itself.
The former Real Madrid youth coach could have been an even bigger hit in west London, with the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Club World Cup all realistic targets in November.
But bearing in mind the hostility he received throughout much of his reign, Benítez will be satisfied with the Europa League crown and another top-four finish – his fifth in eight seasons in England.
“When you analyse why you would go to a top side like this for seven months, it’s because you can win trophies. When you have a chance like this you have to take it,” Benítez said at his unveiling at Stamford Bridge in November.
And it’s hard to argue the 50-year-old didn’t take his opportunity.