Early Doors

Rafa Benitez deserves Chelsea’s thanks and praise

Early Doors

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If Chelsea win the Europa League tonight, Rafa Benitez will not bask in the adulation of the fans as Roberto Di Matteo did a year ago.

Grateful players will not toss him joyously around like Pep Guardiola or Jupp Heynckes.

The best he can hope for is to be ignored while everyone else celebrates a success devised by him.

Even outside Chelsea, there is not much sympathy for Benitez, but Early Doors reckons he has taken on an impossible job and performed remarkably well.

Don't believe ED? Let's do what the man himself would, and examine the facts:

FACT: Rafa Benitez’s record as Chelsea manager: P46, W26, D10, L10, Win 56%.

FACT: Roberto Di Matteo’s record as Chelsea manager: P42, W24, D9, L9, Win 57%.

FACT: Benitez took over a team with two wins in eight games. A team with massive defensive problems. A team all but out of the Champions League and at risk not just of missing the top four but plummeting out of the Premier League’s leading six.

FACT: Benitez has guided them to relatively comfortable Champions League qualification and a European final.

FACT: A manager derided for his dry, defensive football has got Chelsea playing arguably the most thrilling, technical football anywhere in England. Yes he has superb players, but he has let them express themselves. More than you can say about Jose Mourinho with Joe Cole or Arjen Robben.

FACT: He juggled a hellish fixture list that included runs in the Club World Cup, League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League. And yes, it's true he has won none of them, but that could well change tonight.

FACT: He has got playing Fernando Torres playing more like his old self. Not quite back to his best, but certainly better than any time since 2009/10 when his manager was... oh! Rafa Benitez!

FACT: At a time when the club - not Benitez, the club - staunchly refused to offer Frank Lampard a new contract, Benitez coaxed enough fine performances from the old stager to make him the club's all-time top scorer. Imagine the adulation Mourinho would get for this.

FACT: He did what no England manager has done and eased John Terry out of his first XI in a quiet, fuss-free manner - very definitely relegating his captain but giving him just enough matches to avoid uproar. Quite a feat.

FACT: He did all of this saddled with a ludicrous 'interim' tag devised by a club bold enough to appoint him but too timid to offer full-throated backing.

FACT: Despite his title pulling the rug from underneath him, Benitez has lasted - in terms of matches - longer than Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Andre Villa-Boas and Di Matteo. In Chelsea terms, two-thirds of a season is positively Fergie-esque.

FACT: He received little public backing from the players, who have been happy to speculate openly about Mourinho’s return in recent weeks,.

FACT: The fans never accepted him.

FACT: Scratch that. They hated him. Still do. A visceral, personal loathing cascading from the stands from his first game.

FACT: The A4 ‘Rafa Out!’ banners might have gone but the ill will remains. Every match features a chorus of ‘F*** off Benitez, you’re not wanted here.’

FACT: Benitez suffered a 'meltdown' in February when he criticised the board andthe fans. Unwise, perhaps, but it takes some restraint to restrict yourself to one rant when your own fans tell you to f*** off every three days.

FACT: There’s no doubting the fervour of the fans’ feelings, but it's hard to understand exactly why they despise him so. It’s true, for a spell during the mid-noughties he was the anti-Mourinho in a series of fractious Liverpool-Chelsea battles. But ultimately his crimes boil down to a remark about plastic flags and another quote widely attributed to him but actually made up by a Czech kid on Twitter.

FACT: Even yesterday, in his press conference before a major European final, he was asked if his time at Chelsea might have been different if he had apologised. Apologise? For what? For defending Liverpool as Liverpool manager? He was supposed to bow down to the people telling him to f*** off and let them know how very sorry he was for making a solitary comment about flags when in charge of a rival club?

FACT: Rafa Benitez took a team in danger of spiralling out of control and put them back on the straight and narrow. He may not have been the man for the long term, but as a quick fix he was ideal. Much as he should never have been labelled as such, he actually fulfilled the brief of an interim manager to perfection.

FACT: Win or lose tonight, Rafa Benitez deserves thanks and praise from everyone connected to Chelsea Football Club.

- - -

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It's a long read, but a good one - click here.

COMING UP: You can't move for Europa League coverage today. We've got the wise words of Arsene Wenger, Jim White and Reda Maher, who will be chatting live from Amsterdam from 2pm. And of course we've got the whole shebang live - Benfica v Chelsea, kick-off 19:45 UK time.

Alex Chick - @alexchick81

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