Benitez Leaves The Blues A Winner
By Terry Baddoo
So Rafa is redeemed and the longest “internship” in Premier League history has enjoyed a successful conclusion. Rafa Benitez’ torturous tenure at Chelsea may not have convinced comrade Abramovich that the Spaniard is the man for the job, but it’s certainly convinced many others that Rafa is rejuvenated and deserves to be rehabilitated into the Premier League fold on a permanent basis.
In the past, I wasn’t a fan of Rafa. I thought he was arrogant and too prone to throwing his toys out of the pram. I also thought his rants about Sir Alex Ferguson were unprofessional and I couldn’t understand how a guy in his privileged position could seem so bitter and dissatisfied with his lot. But, his time off the radar seems to have mellowed him. At Chelsea, he’s been the epitome of professionalism, diplomacy, and dignity under extreme pressure from a Blues' crowd with a long and vindictive memory. And he’s had the last laugh, by steering the world’s most talented Pensioners to a Europa League crown and the top-4 Premier League finish that books a berth in next year’s Champions League.
That’s not too shabby for a man who was appointed as an interim manager and informed almost from the get-go that a stop gap was all he would ever be at the club. That would have been fine for the relative rookie he replaced, Roberto Di Matteo, whose success at Chelsea was as much a product of good timing as great management, but for a Champions League winner with a world class pedigree it was a total insult. However, unlike in the past, at Liverpool and Inter, where his ego was his downfall, the man previously derided as “the fat Spanish waiter” rolled up his sleeves and delivered a gourmet dish, staring down the abuse like the winning chef on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. Ok, it was only the Europa League and a probable 3rd place in the Premier League I hear you say. But that ignores the fact that 3rd and 4thplace in this year’s EPL was more hotly contested than the title itself, and the Europa League featured some of the best teams that the much maligned competition has ever seen.
Of course, some would say Benitez has been on a charm offensive; that he was on his best behavior in the hope of changing Roman’s mind; and that his whole season has been one long PR campaign. And perhaps there’s an element of truth in that. But it’s a fool who doesn’t learn from past mistakes. And, if keeping his counsel was a means to an end, well he played it like a chess master.
So credit where credit’s due. In the business of football you’re only as good as your last season if not your last game. No-one gives a keeper’s jock strap about your CV. It’s all about “What have you done for me lately?” And in a sport where the width of a crossbar can turn you from marvel to mug, and vice versa, Benitez has found a way to not only survive but to reinvent himself as a manager with whom the top clubs can again do business.
In short, Rafa the Gaffer has passed the test with flying colors, and, in my opinion, has done more than enough to at least be part of the conversation for the vacancy at Manchester City or any other club where the elite ply their trade. So Arsene Wenger, Brendan Rodgers, maybe even Jose Mourinho if he’s considering a return to the Bridge, don’t rest on your laurels, because the Spanish waiter is back for seconds and he’s hungry for more success.