Football - Benitez waves goodbye to Chelsea with reputation enhanced

The best Rafael Benitez could say about his time at Chelsea was that he left with the grudging and muted respect of even his most vituperative critics.

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Europa League - Mourinho snipes at Benitez's cup win at Chelsea
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Chelsea's interim manager Rafael Benitez lifts the UEFA Europa League

The Spaniard arrived at Stamford Bridge against a backdrop of hostility but walked away from the fans, who greeted his arrival with vociferous abuse, with his reputation enhanced.

Benitez, who took over as coach of Serie A team Napoli on Monday, led Chelsea to Europa League glory and helped them finish third in the Premier League, thereby qualifying for next season's Champions League.

On paper, Chelsea represented something of a poison chalice for Benitez.

Unloved and unwanted by those upset at the dismissal of terrace hero Roberto Di Matteo in November, he had to guide a club that finished sixth last season into the top four.

Having unfairly gained a reputation as a troublemaker in previous roles, failure could have scuppered any lingering hopes he had of getting another top job elsewhere.

As it was, his tactical ability to organise, combined with meticulous attention to detail, qualities Chelsea had perhaps lacked under Di Matteo, helped steer what was a listing ship through a perilously rocky period.

The Spaniard was never going to be popular with Chelsea fans, after robbing them of the opportunity to play in two Champions League finals in his previous guise as manager of Liverpool.

Benitez had also poured salt into supposed wounds with comments alluding to the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge and comparing it unfavourably to the feral roar of Anfield on a European night.

The clincher, however, in the swivel-eyed logic of Chelsea fans seemingly intent on handicapping their own chances of success, was that Benitez had replaced one of their own - and the guy who won them the Champions League in May 2012.

HARD HEARTS SOFTENED

Little thought was given to the fact that it was not Benitez who had sacked Di Matteo and ensured the seeds of stability were not given the chance to germinate.

As the months wore on and the club's prospects of success continued on an upward curve, even the hardest of Chelsea hearts softened.

While there was no collective outpouring of gratitude at his departure, smatterings of appreciation surfaced during the club's final Premier League game against Everton.

Benitez had, as required, guided the club back into the Champions League and added European silverware to the trophy cabinet.

The Europa League title, claimed with victory against Benfica and a goal straight from the Benitez training ground tactics, will be an achievement written in the record books for posterity.

The context of his time spent in the Chelsea hot seat, however, shows the manager's role went above and beyond the application of his undoubted tactical nous.

Benitez took the hostility in his stride and even used it to gain some leverage within the club. His plea for calm aimed at angry fans after a routine FA Cup victory at Middlesbrough in February was initially labelled a "rant" by British media.

In hindsight it proved a shrewd move that earned him respect from players and prompted a rethink from the majority of Chelsea fans.

Benitez also successfully managed to ease to one side two of the club's elder statesman in a way that avoided open warfare.

In the face of repeated questions about the phasing out of club greats Frank Lampard and John Terry, Benitez managed to distance himself from the dirty coalface that had blackened Andre Villas-Boas's time in charge the year before.

Lampard's ongoing contract issue was sidestepped as a matter for the club rather than the embattled interim manager.

Terry, seen as a powerful dressing room and pitchside influence under Di Matteo, had his role recast from talisman to cheerleader without the fireworks that could have ensued had the player taken public umbrage.

Benitez also unravelled another knotty problem when he figured out what to do about David Luiz, a marauding defender whose frequent forays upfield and habit of giving away silly free kicks and penalties made him a liability at the back.

Playing the Brazilian in midfield was a logical solution but one that previous managers shunned rather than embraced and the player grew in stature.

Amid the lather of excitement caused by Jose Mourinho's expected return, it is unlikely any Chelsea fan will cast a backwards glance in Benitez's direction.

His achievements are frequently overlooked in the game but they deserve repeating.

Two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup with Valencia, Champions League, FA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, FA Cup at Liverpool, FIFA Club World Cup at Inter Milan and the Europa League at Chelsea.

Benitez has given the impresssion he craves a return to Liverpool where he reached two Champions League finals within three years of arriving and where he owns a house and his family continue to live.

Having returned for a second stint in Serie A, that looks an increasingly unlikely scenario, but if it did come off, Liverpool fans would not need to be told how to welcome him back.

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