Just when it seemed the Premier League’s most headline-hungry club were set to complete two weeks without a crisis, Rafa Benitez’s remarkable rhetoric following an FA Cup victory at Middlesbrough has set up possibly the biggest spectacular of all against West Bro this weekend — if you don’t count today’s pre-match press conference at Cobham.
Most onlookers at The Riverside on Wednesday surmised that Benitez wouldn’t last that long after his unprompted if not unprovoked attack on the behaviour of supporters, who have continued to boo and berate him even when the team win, and more tellingly on decisions made by the Blues board who foisted on him the title of ‘interim manager’ which, he said, made an already difficult job even tougher.
But Chelsea’s insistence yesterday that it was “business as usual” — and news that Benitez took training at Cobham without interference and will stage his usual press conference this lunchtime — have set up the prospect of a Saturday matinee to keep the show rolling on.
Several insiders at the club have suggested in the meantime that it would be a real surprise if Benitez lasted beyond Sunday even though the Spaniard has given an interview to the BBC insisting he maintains the backing of Roman Abramovich and expects to stay; so perhaps it is Roman’s secret love of the football circus that compels him to make us wait.
Certainly the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge will now be carnivorous; because far from embarrassing Chelsea fans into submission, the Spaniard’s latest rant appears to have galvanised the campaign against him.
“I don’t fancy being him at the weekend,” former Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair said. “I can’t see it having any positive effect. I can’t understand it. All the fans will have taken it personally. He seems like a man at the end of his tether, maybe this could be an easy way out of it.”
The omens for Benitez, in any case, are not good — particularly if he cares to juxtapose the following facts:
n Roberto Di Matteo’s last Premier League match as manager of Chelsea was against West Brom in November 2012.
nAndre Villas-Boas was sacked after losing to West Brom in March 2012.
However, although there appear to be very few people who give Benitez any chance of surviving to the end of the season — former Chelsea manager John Hollins, for instance, insisted: “I don’t think he will last very long, maybe the end of the week,” there have been some voices of support from the shadows.
Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, said to have close links with the former Liverpool manager, was strongly critical of Chelsea supporters who have refused to accept to a man who was once quoted as saying the club had ‘plastic’ fans.
“A lot of what’s been done against Benitez by a minority of fans is based on a quote that he didn’t give,” he insisted. “From minute one, there’s been bullying towards him. It doesn’t matter what he does, there’ll be a section of fans against him.
“The team is not performing well in Stamford Bridge because of the behaviour of the fans. I wouldn’t be proud if my behaviour was affecting my team negative.”
Interestingly, Balague insists Benitez was initially offered an 18-month contract by the club but insisted on a six-month deal for his own reasons — which would indicate he was not necessarily seen as a stop-gap manager, which is certainly what he has now become.
Even if Benitez lasts until May — far from impossible, as long as Chelsea remain in the top four — his bridges have been well and truly burned when it comes to being offered a new contract; and given reports that Abramovich has already approached Jose Mourinho’s agent about a possible return to Stamford Bridge, it’s clear their interest lies elsewhere.
The return of the Special One, of course, would be the perfect follow-up to keep the show evolving, the ideal next chapter for a soap opera that shows no sign of running out of storylines or subplots.
But before Benitez exits stage left — and he won’t leave alone, because technical director Michael Emenalo and chief executive Ron Gourlay are also in danger — there appears to be time for at least one more cliffhanger in a drama that has already seen a hatful of sackings, a court case over racist abuse, air rifles at the training ground, off-field affairs, on-field rows, a manager hiding in a linen bin, serious accusations against a referee, improbable Champions League victories and of course, a string of glittering trophies.
Maybe that’s the way Roman likes it. But how strange that a man who shuns the limelight — he has not given a single public interview since taking over at Chelsea in 2003 — seems to be ultimately happy to watch crisis after crisis unfold in front of him and see his club perennially described as a laughing stock.
That phrase will certainly be used this weekend if Benitez, as expected, hangs onto his job for the short-term; and all the rest of us can do is sit back in incredulity and enjoy it all.
It’s Saturday, it’s Chelsea. Send in the clowns...