Skip to content

All aboard the Rafamobile! Benítez suddenly coach of Chelsea (for now)

Nov 21, 2012, 4:00 PM EDT

rafa_getty_1607715c Getty Images

Hours after they parted ways with the man who won them their first European title, Chelsea’s moved on to a man whose reputation hinges on his UEFA Champions League success.

With the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez today, Chelsea’s replaced Roberto Di Matteo, if only in the short-term. Given the job of seeing out the 2012-13 season, Benítez appears to be doing little more than keeping a seat warm for Roman Abramovich’s true ambition – Pep Guardiola.

Here’s the club’s statement:

Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season.

The owner and the Board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives.

The 52-year-old Spaniard is due to meet the players at the training ground in Cobham tomorrow

Those objectives are unlikely to include UEFA Champions League, where Chelsea’s fate now depends on Juventus losing in Donetsk on matchday six. Of course, that could happen, and if it does (while Chelsea beats Nordsjaelland), the Blues will have a man whose reputation has come to rest on his Champions League accumen. If not, there’s always the league, two domestic cups, and Europa League.

It’s a good appointment for everybody except Di Matteo, who likely would be in a job today had Benítez been either unavailable or unwilling to subjugate himself to a temporary position.

Such has been Benítez’s fall. After guiding Liverpool to second in the Premier League in 2008-09, he allowed Liverpool to slip to seventh place, the failure to make Champions League beginning a slide from which the club’s still recovering. Benítez’s subsequent inability to replace José Mourinho at Inter Milan meant the former Valencia boss’s best route to a marquee job was a situation like Chelsea’s.

Let’s also not forget the nature Benítez’s failings in Milan, because they’re particularly relevant to his potential success at Chelsea. We should take managerial hubris and put it aside, because Benítez has likely been dissuaded of notions that had him shrug off his part in Liverpool’s downfall. The state he left Internazionale in was bad enough.

There he inherited an old team coming off a Mourinho-led European title and not only changed how they played but ran his veterans into the ground. There’s more than one similarity to be drawn between that Inter side and Benítez’s new charge. By the time the Nerazzurri took off for 2011’s Club World Cup, they were depleted, mutinous, and out of chances for their ill-fitting coach.

While Benítez is not directly replacing Mourinho in London, he will again be faced with expectations raised by the Special One. Even after Di Matteo delivered the one prize José couldn’t claim, standards at Stamford Bridge reflect the demands of a man five years gone. If Benítez is going to retain his job, he has to claim the league, FA Cup, or Europa League. And as Di Matteo’s travails show, even that might not be enough.

Because if Benítez is to win silverware during his Stamford Bridge residency, it will likely be through the same pragmatism that characterized his most successful times at Anfield. It’s not ugly, it’s not anti-football, but it’s also not Barcelona. And for whatever misguided reasons Roman Abramovich is using to fuel his decisions, Chelsea’s owner won’t be happy until his team is playing the brand of soccer he’s wanted since the day he bought the club.

The lack of style undid Mourinho. It undid Di Matteo. And it will likely undo Benítez, regardless of results.

The one thing that could keep Benítez in London past May 2013 is if Guardiola goes elsewhere, because for everything we’ve heard about Abramovich’s lust of Pep, we’ve heard little of reciprocation from the former Barça boss. We know he prefers England. We know he prefers London. We also know that he’s unlikely to make any decisions until early-2013, if not later.

All of which makes the treatment of Di Matteo more curious. Replacing a club icon with a former rival is precarious enough (though Chelsea fans will likely recognize Benítez’s qualities). To do so when it’s unclear if lack of a striker or thin central midfield are the real problems hints Di Matteo was never going to be embraced by Abramovich. It didn’t matter that Di Matteo’s Champions League troubles came in a group with two of the top eight teams in Europe. That he lost provided Arbamovich an out from a man he never truly wanted, even if it made more sense to keep him until the Guardiola question was resolved.

With no answers in sight, Chelsea fans are best served concentrating on the present. They aren’t the best team in England, but they’re capable of competing for the title. Perhaps Benítez will bring something new out of them. Cup competitions have taken on a special meaning for the Blues. They’re still alive in both. And even if Europe only offers Europa League, the team has enough young, exciting talents to make that congestion-inducing tournament worth a Chelsea-supporters’ time. There’s still plenty of light in this 2012-13 tunnel.

Roberto Di Matteo won’t be driving them through it, but it’s time to move on. All aboard the Rafamobile.

Latest Posts
  1. VIDEO: Freddy Adu scores free kick for a fourth-division reserve team in Finland

    Jul 2, 2015, 11:03 PM EDT

    Freddy Adu

    The end is nigh for Freddy Adu’s professional soccer career, isn’t it? This has to be as low as it goes.

  2. USA vs. Guatemala preview: USMNT’s final tune-up before 2015 Gold Cup

    Jul 2, 2015, 10:05 PM EDT

    Jurgen Klinsmann, USMNT Getty Images

    One last chance for Jurgen Klinsmann to tinker and fine-tune before the USMNT defends its Gold Cup title.

  3. Drama of semifinal now over, Japan ready to defend Women’s World Cup title vs. USA

    Jul 2, 2015, 8:53 PM EDT

    Japan — 2015 Women's World Cup Japan — 2015 Women's World Cup

    Japan head coach Norio Sasaki: “I do not feel badly for Laura Bassett.”

  4. 2015 Gold Cup — Group C preview: Hobbled Mexico still favorites over Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba

    Jul 2, 2015, 7:08 PM EDT

    Giovani Dos Santos, Mexico Giovani Dos Santos, Mexico

    Mexico may have lost two Gold Cup starters in the last week, but they’re still heavy favorites in Group C.

  5. 2015 Gold Cup – Group B preview: Costa Rica’s to clash with Canada, Jamaica, El Salvador

    Jul 2, 2015, 3:35 PM EDT

    Brazil Soccer WCup Netherlands Costa Rica AP

    Here’s a look at who Los Ticos will have to get by in the group stages. Can Canada and Jamaica make a deep run?

  6. Guardiola urges Manchester United target Schweinsteiger to make up his mind

    Jul 2, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    Bayern Muenchen v Borussia Moenchengladbach - Bundesliga Getty Images

    Pep is more than happy to keep Schweinsteiger around at the Allianz next season, but he’s becoming a little restless.

  7. Thursday’s Transfer Rumor Roundup: Pogba to Barcelona, Ramos to Manchester United

    Jul 2, 2015, 1:40 PM EDT

    Sergio Ramos's early brace sparked Real Madrid to a dominant display in Munich. (Photo: AP Photos.) AP

    The latest gossip is right here, with updates on two monster transfers.

  8. Mark Sampson: “England achieved things no one thought we could”

    Jul 2, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT

    Japan v England: Semi Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Getty Images

    England’s head coach was full of pride and admiration for his team despite falling at the semifinal hurdle.

  9. Clint Dempsey replaced by Michael Bradley as USMNT captain for Gold Cup

    Jul 2, 2015, 11:57 AM EDT

    Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley

    Kilnsmann reveals he has decided to take the armband off Clint and hand it to Bradley.

  10. Despite devastating World Cup exit, England’s women inspired a nation

    Jul 2, 2015, 10:25 AM EDT

    Despite defeat to Japan, England's women have inspired a nation this summer. Despite defeat to Japan, England's women have inspired a nation this summer.

    Describing the scene from England, as the Lionesses helped to inspire a nation this summer in Canada.

  11. Report: Abou Diaby heading to MLS, FC Dallas after Arsenal release

    Jul 2, 2015, 9:23 AM EDT

    Stoke City v Arsenal -  Barclays Premier League Getty Images

    French international is reportedly mulling over an offer from FCD. What do we think about this?

  12. Huge blow for Mexico: Javier Hernandez breaks collarbone, out of 2015 Gold Cup

    Jul 2, 2015, 8:47 AM EDT

    Javier Hernandez Javier Hernandez

    Manchester United’s “Chicharito” will not play for El Tri this summer after being injured in a friendly.

  13. US ask Switzerland to extradite seven FIFA officials

    Jul 2, 2015, 7:40 AM EDT

    65th FIFA Congress Previews 65th FIFA Congress Previews

    The U.S. Department of Justice wants to bring FIFA officials accused of corruption to the USA.

  14. Round 3: USA-Japan Women’s World Cup final a familiar matchup

    Jul 2, 2015, 12:59 AM EDT

    150702-Wambach-Sawa Getty Images

    Japan beat the U.S. to win the 2011 World Cup. The U.S. beat Japan to win the 2012 Olympics. Round 3 takes place Sunday in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.

  15. Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup roundup: Dwyer bags four, RBNY top Cosmos, quarterfinals set

    Jul 2, 2015, 12:28 AM EDT

    Sporting KC's Dom Dwyer (14) heads a ball over the New England Revolution's Jose Goncalves (23) in the first half at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images) Getty Images

    A Major League Soccer franchise is going to win the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

  16. “She’s in a hard place”: England boss Sampson consoles, praises Bassett after semifinal loss

    Jul 1, 2015, 11:57 PM EDT

    Sampson consoles his players after the crushing defeat. Getty Images

    Mark Sampson spoke in detail about the character of Laura Bassett and how he hopes girls in England are inspired for the future.

  17. Bassett’s long journey takes cruel twist, but England women show future is bright

    Jul 1, 2015, 11:11 PM EDT

    Laura Bassett of England is comforted by her teammates. Getty Images

    Full credit to England for an inspiring World Cup, and to Japan for getting to a second straight World Cup final.

Featured video

PST Extra: Done deals & transfer gossip