Chelsea manager Rafael Benítez is in a tough spot. In fact, he’d probably be the first to admit it, though it would come with a caveat: often trial is accompanied by opportunity.
Benítez arrived at Chelsea in November, tasked with renewing a project with its genesis in former boss Andre Villas-Boas: the refreshment and gentrification of a team with roots reaching back to the Claudio Ranieri era – that is, eight years and eight managers ago. The former Liverpool manager is neither liked at Stamford Bridge nor blessed with long-term job security: comments made of Chelsea supporters have hardly endeared himself to the Blues faithful, while Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich appears to have a thing for former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
The first two players seemingly to be moved on are stalwarts Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard, neither of whom have been offered new contracts despite their current deals expiring in June. Cole has been more vocal, as is his wont – indeed, he probably has more currency still being near the peak of his powers and retaining his position as England’s left-back. In contrast, while both sides have leaked information concerning a lack of contract negotiations, Lampard himself has been relatively quiet, by default claiming the moral high ground as a club champion ushered out the door before his time.
Sources suggested it was Benítez’s personal relationship with Abramovich that allowed him to take the manager’s role. After being out of work for nearly two years, it was a low-risk: do what Roman wanted and if everything works out, take control of the club in the long(er) term; at worst, Rafa could – and has, somewhat – proved his big-club bona fides after an ill-fated spell at Inter Milan.
What Roman apparently wants, however is to revive Andre Villas-Boas’ youthful attacking scheme. Rumours persist that Lampard and Cole haven’t been offered new deals as Abramovich seeks to rid the club of players he sees as implicit in Villas-Boas’ loss of control and eventual demise.
In employing an unpopular henchman with serious questions over his long-term future, Abramovich has played to Russian money stereotype, but has done so with great effect. Benítez, a hard-nosed, obstinate – and talented – manager is perhaps the best appointment for a thankless task. Benítez has taken on the role as a goon to shield his boss, and perhaps his replacement, from tarnishing their reputation with the fans.