Rafael Benitez clasped the poisoned chalice that comes with being manager of Chelsea Football Club yesterday and made the astonishing claim that he was offered and accepted the job without even talking to the man who mixes the lethal potion; owner Roman Abramovich.
Benitez’s performance in front of the world’s media at Stamford Bridge was confident and charismatic, as you would expect of a man who won the Champions League with Liverpool, La Liga with Valencia and the Fifa Club World Cup with Inter Milan.
But the sense of incredulity at his appointment — in place of Roberto Di Matteo who had been ruthlessly sacked despite giving Abramovich the Champions League trophy — was heightened by a bizarre admission he has no idea what type of football he is expected to produce because he hasn’t even met the club’s owner let alone held discussions of what is expected of him during his six or seven months in charge as Chelsea’s ‘interim manager’.
When you consider Abramovich has twice offered to send a private helicopter to fly Pep Guardiola for a personal meeting on his yacht in a bid to persuade the former Barcelona coach to move to London then you wonder just how serious the Russian is about the man who is widely believed to be keeping the hot seat warm for his compatriot.
“I haven’t met him yet; I will meet him today,” said Benitez, who was taken for dinner by Abramovich following his press conference. “The main thing is that I have spoken to Michael Emenalo, the technical director, and he’s my link. I like to speak about football with him. That’s my priority.
“Hopefully I will see the owner and talk about things. The information I have from different people is that he likes to see his team playing good football, but he’s not involved every day, telling the manager to do this or that. He just wants to see the team playing well.”
On that basis you have to wonder if Benitez knows what he is letting himself in for; because Abramovich is certainly more hands-on than the Spaniard admits, especially when you consider that Di Matteo lost his job partly because, against orders, he dropped Fernando Torres for the crucial Champions League match against Juventus in Turin this week.
But perhaps Rafa is more cunning than we think. There were stories in Spain that he did in fact meet personally with Abramovich, at least two weeks ago, and you certainly hope he is going into the job with his eyes open.
But having coped with political in-fighting during his time at Anfield when owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett were at each other’s throats he feels able to cope.
“You saw how we were performing even with all these problems at Liverpool. Here you don’t have two owners who aren’t talking to each other,” he said. “You have an owner, a technical director and good staff, so for me maybe it’s easier.”
Even so, if communication is going to be the key then you have to wonder at the wisdom of not asking for further talks with Abramovich before he signed; especially when the Russian has been so particular about his dream of emulating Barcelona.
“I don’t know about the style he wants,” admitted Benitez. “But he’ll be happy with the team winning. It’s not about one way to play; you manage for the games, for the opposing teams. With these players and the quality we have, we can do well.”
It’s also clear that Chelsea have bestowed the title ‘interim manager’ on Benitez for a reason and he will play little part in choosing which players are signed in the January transfer market.
Who though, can blame Benitez for accepting it? Perhaps he figures that he would have to be an unmitigated disaster not to last six months in the role; and with Guardiola already in informal talks about a move to London there is little pressure on his shoulders.
“I have very good relationships with Guardiola, he is a great manager,” insisted Benitez. “But I have this chance and I have to do my best to try and take it.”
In fairness, what else could he say? Chelsea, unfortunately, are a club where you just have to choose your poison — and hope for the best.
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