Aston Villa 1 Chelsea 2
Finally, after so much uncertainty, Chelsea enjoy some clarity.
Frank Lampard has broken Bobby Tambling’s scoring record, the team have secured Champions League football and the club as a whole can concentrate on Wednesday’s Europa League final against Benfica.
Rafa Benitez, meanwhile, can instruct his representatives to get him a job with a bit more clout for next season. Because, after an impressively resilient 2-1 victory over Aston Villa that will ensure the Spaniard’s time at Stamford Bridge is at the very least a qualified success, he admitted the process has “started already”.
“The agents are working. I can start to talk right now but it’s not my job. My job is to concentrate on the games. My agent is talking around.”
And is he talking to English clubs? “Not yet,” Benitez said with a smile that suggested a bit more.
Newcastle United are one of a number of teams understood to be interested, along with Malaga and Paris Saint-Germain. One thing is certain: Benitez feels even more justified about being picky after guiding Chelsea to the top four.
“I think that some people will realise that, when you have nine trophies all around the world, something we will have done is maybe right. For sure we will have will have offers. To be fair, we already have some clubs asking but it depends on the level of the project.
“When I was not working, some people were saying ‘oh you cannot get a job’. I had a lot of offers but you were looking for a top side or the proper project to build something.”
The key question is whether those outside the manager’s circle see this season in the same way he does. Benitez says he is very proud of his achievement, especially given all the chaos and fixture congestion — “not a perfect environment”, as he puts it.
Next Sunday, though, we could have an even more curious situation: the Spaniard may have secured a top-four place as well as the Europa League trophy but still not receive any credit from the Stamford Bridge crowd.
Part of the reason for that, beyond the obvious history with Liverpool, is perhaps games like this at Villa Park.
It almost encapsulated Benitez’s campaign. Forced to rotate due to a hectic schedule, the Chelsea manager’s compromised team were frequently unconvincing and often in danger. Ultimately, after an awful lot of frantic controversy, they did enough.
There was, however, a strong degree of fortune to go with their fortitude. Christian Benteke had been rampant in the first half as he brushed by Gary Cahill to open the scoring and threatened to do so much more damage. In the end, he only hurt his own team as a reckless high foot led to a 59th-minute red card that has been as inevitable as Ramires’s expulsion in the first half.
It proved the turning point. Within two minutes, Lampard had equalised. Within 20, Eden Hazard had worked the opening for the midfielder to score the winner. Amid all the celebrations about the record-breaking strike, the only downside for Chelsea was that the Belgian suffered a hamstring injury that may force him out of Wednesday. Benitez put it down to congestion.
Paul Lambert, meanwhile, refused to put the defeat down to Benteke’s challenge. Despite the dismissal leaving Villa in danger pending a Wigan win at Arsenal tomorrow — as well as without the forward for the crunch at the DW Stadium next week — Lambert insisted he will not turn the 20-year-old into a less aggressive player.
“I won’t curtail that. Listen, the big ‘un takes some himself. He’s not a shrinking violet, that’s for sure. If you take that away from really good players you lose a bit of them.”
Lambert is confident, however, he won’t lose Benteke in the summer.
“I’ve spoken to him on a few occasions, just general talking and I think he’s quoted himself that he’s really happy here so I’ve just left it at that.”
Lampard, meanwhile, may not yet be leaving Chelsea. He feels the two strikes that put him on 203 club goals and also sent them into the Champions League may yet win him a new contract.
“My eyes are very wide open. The club have been very good to me and a lot of things have been said. But I think they have moved the club on. The club is looking to the future. I think the club are making the right decisions and I hope to stay. Simple as that.”
Thanks to Lampard, too, the club’s season looks a lot less complex.
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