By Liam Twomey
In the days since Rafael Benitez’s appointment, the public fury and indignation of Chelsea fans has been quietened by the crushing realisation that their voices count for nothing while the club remains under the despotic direction of Roman Abramovich.
But if any reminder was needed of the intense antipathy which still assails the Spaniard, Sunday afternoon could present us with the startling spectacle of a manager being booed by a significant minority of his own fans on his first game in charge of his new club.
Benitez is a smart man. He will surely have been aware what emotions the news of Roberto Di Matteo’s brutal sacking and his unveiling as the latest tenant in the hottest of managerial seats would provoke among the Blues faithful. If he was naïve enough to think a self-enforced exile of almost two years from the world of management would be enough to dim their ill-feeling, he has quickly learned the scale of his misjudgement.
The ire Benitez raises among Chelsea fans has its historical root in fear. There was a time when the only team consistently able to breach the aura of invincibility which surrounded Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea was the Spaniard’s Liverpool side.
Over four attritional Champions League semi-final clashes in 2005 and 2007, the ‘Special One’ was tactically out-thought while his team wilted at the sound of the Anfield roar. Complaints about ‘ghost goals’ and negative football only served to cloud the truth that the Reds and their manager were worthy winners.
The fixture list, which appeared overly fond of throwing together endless sequels to this modern footballing rivalry, bred dislike, but it was the goading jibes of both managers which helped foster genuine contempt. Things became viciously tribal, and Benitez showed willingness to carry the fight by targeting the identity this new Chelsea were attempting to forge for themselves.
At Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, there is a sign emblazoned with words attributed to Benitez. “We do not need to give away flags to wave – our supporters are always there with their hearts and that is all we need,” it reads. “It is the passion of our fans that helps to win matches – not flags.”
“Chelsea is a big club with fantastic players, every manager wants to coach such a big team,” he told reporters in 2007. “But I would never take that job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool, no matter what. For me there is only one club in England, and that’s Liverpool.”
It is hard to argue against the notion that no other continental manager has gone to such lengths to assimilate himself into the cultural fabric of his club, or succeeded so emphatically. Benitez still lives on Merseyside, an honorary Scouser, and is afforded hero status at Anfield, despite the bitter struggles of the Tom Hicks and George Gillett regime which ultimately led to his departure.
At his unveiling, Benitez attempted to play down his past comments as no more than his professional duty. “If I’m a fan, I would like to see my manager fighting for my team, my club and doing almost everything to win every game,” he argued.
“So I don’t see this as a lack of respect for the Chelsea fans. It’s more a manager defending his team against another top side. I’m sure the fans here would like to see me doing the same now that I am here, defending their club.”
Yet the fact remains that, in order to accept the Spaniard’s arrival, there is plenty of the recent past that Chelsea fans are required to forgive and forget, and plenty of the present they must choose to overlook. It will, at the very least, be a long journey for them and a monumental challenge for him.
Success on the pitch, as ever, will make things a little easier – something not lost on Benitez himself. “We have something in common always managers and fans: we want to win every single game,” he added. “Nobody wants to win more than the fans and the manager.
“I’m sure they will be happy with a manager that has this winning mentality, this passion for the game and a manager who will do everything he can to win games.”
Key to achieving this may well be re-igniting Fernando Torres, another who crossed this increasingly fraught north-south divide. ‘El Nino’ was intended by Abramovich to be the poster boy for his Chelsea revolution; instead he has become the most potent symbol of the shameless decadence of club which has squandered hundreds of millions in the pursuit of dreams.
His best form now over two years removed, many have written off the listless, present-day incarnation of Torres as a lost cause. But not the Chelsea owner, whose decision to hire Benitez was surely prompted by the knowledge of the devastatingly fruitful relationship the Spanish duo struck up at Liverpool.
By taking the job, Benitez has plunged himself into a world of hostility. It seems an impossible task, but if Torres can be revived into anything like the phenomenon of old, he at least stands a fighting chance of leaving Stamford Bridge with more than his P45 and a big fat cheque.
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