Rafa Benitez initially came into Cobham yesterday with a knowingly wide smile, well aware his Wednesday comments would make this a testy press conference.
There was a distinct moment, though, when his face dropped.
As the situation started to simmer, the Chelsea boss was asked how he thinks he’s performing.
Benitez tried to calm things with a quip: “In the press conference?”
Any laughter, however, only came after the reporter’s response.
“No, they’re always the same.”
One of the reasons that Benitez’s statements after the Middlesbrough match caused such consternation, of course, was because they were anything but the same. In fact, for all the controversy that has swirled around the club, the Spaniard has understandably — if frustratingly — developed a few stock lines he uses to dampen any interview.
“I hear nothing, I am only concentrating on the match.”
“I am focused on training.”
“If you analyse...”
It was with the latter phrase that Benitez actually began yesterday’s exchange, imploring people to look at his Wednesday comments properly. Any fair analysis, though, will only invite even more questions.
Why, after three months of impressively ignoring the issue of the fans, did he finally crack at the Riverside?
Why choose a similar amount of time to belatedly lay bare his problems with his job title?
Most of all, why turn an otherwise routine win over Middlesbrough that may well have re-energised a wavering team into a story about his status, further enraging the fans and also potentially causing greater problems with the club’s hierarchy?
Because, although there has been some sympathy from Chelsea’s board members with Benitez’s situation, some were said to be amazed — and by no means pleased — he made such an issue of a job description he had signed on for.
Yet, despite the fact every decision of significance is made in the extreme privacy of Roman Abramovich’s offices, it is somewhat appropriate all of this has been played out through the media. This is a club with an awful lot of leaks. Most obviously, a core of team figures will brief friendly journalists any time there is a flashpoint in order to maximise their waning power.
And, in the aftermath of Benitez’s Wednesday comments, a number of explanations were coming.
One was that he had been irritated by the knowledge Chelsea had been making overtures to Jose Mourinho for the summer. Another was that it was borne of fundamental pride — and a related naivety. Because, for all that Benitez speaks of “control”, his attempts to secure it off the pitch have often been overplayed.
In a broader sense, Wednesday’s comments were entirely in character. He has done similar at Valencia, Liverpool and Inter in infamous isolated incidents. Like at Stamford Bridge, all only escalated his problems.
Those close to Benitez on the Spanish side, however, feel that Wednesday night was not premeditated in the manner of the notorious ‘facts’ speech at Anfield. Rather, he wanted to mildly reiterate a point he has always made about “sticking together” and just got carried away.
For his part, he did attempt to put a more positive spin on it all.
“It’s very clear. When the atmosphere is good, the players perform a little bit better so we’ll try and create a good atmosphere so it’ll be easier for us to get what we want to. It was all about that.”
There was a lot more doubt, though, surrounding Benitez’s explanations for the comments about his ‘interim’ job title. In short, he attempted to fudge the response and came close to contradicting himself, saying it had been a “mistake” but “now, isn’t an issue”. More tellingly, Benitez notably flipped his answer to the question of whether he still retains the support of those above him.
“I don’t have any problem with the owner, the board, or anyone.”
The big problem with his comments of the last week, though, is that it once again brought that business to the fore. By so abrasively going against the supporters, he gave the board a reason to sack him beyond results.
For the moment, it is understood that is not their wish and they feel the team is still on course for Champions League qualification. Everything, however, could change with dropped points at home to West Brom.
Stamford Bridge will be seething today and having previously done well to keep a rather fragile balance at a club with so much potential for drama, Benitez has now blown it all open again by rising to the fans’ bait.
He does maintain, though, that many of his squad have offered their backing.
“A lot of the players have been supporting me, telling me to carry on doing my job.
“West Brom will be the first one. If we win these games, we can be higher.”
Those, at least, are words no one can take issue with.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved