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Benitez and Chelsea bid to avoid European shame

By Bradley King



LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Fans protest over the signing of new manager Rafael Benitez during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on November 25, 2012 in London, England
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 25: Fans protest over the signing of new manager Rafael Benitez during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on November 25, 2012 in London, England

As they did eight months previously, Chelsea Football Club can make Champions League history once again on Wednesday evening - albeit in more ignominious circumstances.

First and foremost, the Blues must beat FC Nordsjaelland at Stamford Bridge. At the same time, they need to hold onto hope that Shakhtar Donetsk take their foot off the gas against Juventus in Ukraine.

And it is only an Italian failure - coupled with a Chelsea victory - which will prevent under-fire Rafa Benitez's out-of-form side becoming the first Champions League holders ever to be eliminated before the knockout stages.

Of course, the damage was done before Benitez's arrival. Previous boss Roberto di Matteo oversaw a convincing 3-0 defeat to the Old Lady last month - a defeat which took qualification for the next stage out of Chelsea's hands and made owner Roman Abramovich uncomfortable enough to dispose of di Matteo's services.

But the surprise appointment of Benitez has not had the galvanising effect that the Blues' trigger-happy owner might have wished.

After a stalemate in his opening match against Manchester City, Benitez's team have taken just one point from subsequent fixtures against Fulham and West Ham United.

With the majority of Chelsea supporters cautious at best and, at worst, livid over the appointment of the Spaniard, such uninspiring performances have done little to douse the flames of fury over di Matteo's exit.

However no Stamford Bridge-goer will complain should Benitez's more rigid philosophy begin to bear fruits. Having attempted to stiffen up the Blues by dropping 'luxury players' like Juan Mata and Oscar in recent weeks, Benitez has already shown that he is not afraid of tinkering with Chelsea's widely-envied attacking midfield trio - even if such a decision irks supporters.

But filling the leaks in his team is not Benitez's only pressing issue - there is also the enigma of Fernando Torres. Nowadays, the former Liverpool striker's name is almost shorthand for a sudden and unexplainable fall from grace. He is yet to score 20 goals since heading to West London in January 2011.

Many have suggested that one of the main reasons that Abramovich was lured to Benitez as a coach was that he had previously extracted the best from Torres. That is indeed the case as the Spanish forward scored almost at will whilst under Benitez at Anfield.

But who is to say Torres still has that explosive potential? If, as suspected, that pace and predatory instinct has indeed gone forever, Benitez will need to summon other means to start to accumulate that rare modern currency again - Fernando Torres goals.

Despite the current turmoil, a home win over FC Nordsjaelland should be a formality.

There would be no better way for the ex-Liverpool boss to begin changing supporters' opinions than engineering an unlikely European reprieve and saving Chelsea from infamy  - even if such an outcome relies on an Italian failure, too.