We know Benitez is not the most popular man in football right now. Dislike for him was the one thing that the Leeds and Chelsea fans could agree on. Never mind the bile and bickering pouring from the stands, when a chant of “you’re just a fat Spanish waiter” echoed round Elland Road it was hard to work out whether it emanated from the home or visiting fans.
But even if he is aware his past associations mean he cannot ever win a popularity contest at the Bridge, Benitez must know that to let Lampard go would be the ultimate in self-destruction.
On Wednesday the much-derided midfielder was simply peerless. He was brilliant. On a fractious, spiteful evening, he sent out a clear and unequivocal message to Neil Warnock’s team: if your tactic is to try and kick us out of this game, we won’t be bullied.
There was a moment in the first half where Michael Brown attempted to give Lampard a “welcome to a wet Wednesday up north” clatter and simply bounced off him. El Hadji Diouf too felt the full force of Lampard’s strength, going down as if under sniper fire when the Chelsea man slid in to the tackle. Though, to be honest, Diouf would go down as if under sniper fire if a five year old shouted boo behind him.
Lampard’s presence was hugely symbolic on Wednesday. It said loud and clear that Chelsea were not a team of southern softies, filled with dainty foreigners who don’t like it up them. Patrolling an area between the edge of his own penalty area and the centre circle, the stand-in captain gave a masterclass in providing a defensive shield. And how it was needed with David Luiz, in one of his more muddle-headed moods, behind him.
At 34, Lampard has undoubtedly slowed physically. The barnstorming box to box runs are less frequent. His perfectly-timed arrivals in the opposition penalty area are seen less often. But mentally, he has only got better. His reading of the game on Wednesday was at times three or four passes ahead of anyone else on the pitch. He somehow knew where the ball was going to go. And he would ensure that, if Chelsea were in possession, he would be there to help it on its way. Or if Leeds were in possession, he would intercept.
So vital was he to Chelsea’s smooth running, that at one point in the second half - during a lull when someone (probably Diouf) needed treatment - Benitez called him over to the touchline and gave him the benefit of one of those gesticulating tactical instructions that look like the manager is trying to guide an aeroplane in to land on the touchline. Lampard merely nodded and carried on doing what he was already doing: running the game.
Any manager must love having a player like that in their side. Someone who doesn’t wilt, doesn’t falter, who remains disciplined and focused. Even in a world of £200,000-a-week salaries, these are not commonplace qualities. And Chelsea need them as much as anyone.
Indeed, the thought of Lampard playing behind a mobile, interchanging threesome of Hazard, Mata and Oscar would be enough to make Benitez sleep peacefully in his bed at night. It is a lot less likely to provoke insomnia than the thought of John Obi Mikel.
Yet this is Chelsea we are talking about. The club where common sense and loyalty appear no longer to apply. In the strange medieval fiefdom that is Abramovich’s domain, ruthlessness is prized above all other managerial assets. And, at 34, on paper it might appear Lampard should not be offered a long-term renewal on his contract. Bring in someone younger, someone with their future ahead of them might seem the sensible option. Except on Wednesday night, Chelsea didn’t play on paper.
And there will be half a dozen managers closely noting what is going on at the Bridge. Imagine what an asset Lampard would prove at Spurs, or Arsenal, or even – whisper it – Manchester United, a club where the imminent arrival of a player’s 35th birthday does not induce panic in the management. If Chelsea get it wrong here, they could end up hugely strengthening a rival.
Whatever the Chelsea fans may think about him, Benitez is not a stupid man. He will know some management decisions really are as simple as they look. And there is one thing he must do in January that will make his tenure in the most insecure of positions marginally safer. You know it makes sense: sign Frank.
- Sports & Recreation
- Frank Lampard
- Rafael Benitez