Latest episode in Chelsea soap opera proves Benitez IS the problem
By Richard Buxton
Should Chelsea cease delaying the inevitable and tomorrow begin the search for a tenth manager in as many years, their soap opera will develop an increasingly predictable storyline.
But apportioning blame for this latest episode solely to Roman Abramovich and the kamikaze culture his whimsy has swept through Stamford Bridge during his reign as owner of the club is simplistic and, in the case of Rafael Benitez, far too convenient.
Benitez's position has become untenable since his outspokenness following an FA Cup win over Middlesbrough in midweek. The timing was unexpected but unsurprising from a manager who regularly engages and, at times, revels in the art of confrontation.
At the Riverside Stadium, he spoke of the honours he had lifted in a 26-year career in management, but memories of those successes have become hazy. Eight years have elapsed since Liverpool's Champions League win over AC Milan and though he lays claim to the Club World Cup and Italian Super Cup, both won in 2010, they are little more than trinkets in the grander scheme.
Repetitive outbursts of insolence have remained far more vivid, even before Wednesday's abrasive post-match press conference. Biting the hand that feeds is hardly unusual behaviour from Benitez - no fewer than four of Europe's elite clubs can attest to that.
While he may have broken Barcelona and Real Madrid's dominance of La Liga during his time with Valencia, it was not without conflict. His now infamous quote "I asked for a table and they brought me a lampshade" typified that tempestuous relationship with the Mestalla board.
He spent the final years of his Liverpool tenure firing public barbs, aimed largely at erstwhile owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Grandiose proved the petard by which he was dethroned at Anfield after he vowed to 'guarantee' that the club would qualify for the Champions League. They finished seven points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham, as discourse raged within the dressing room.
At Inter Milan, he continued the obsession with his former employers by attacking individuals in the Reds' hierarchy through cryptic and, at times, bizarre proverbs about white liquid in bottles being milk and priests on mountains of sugar. If ever there was a moment that Benitez was supposedly 'cracking up', as countless rival fans have taunted, it was during that period of myopia.
His desperation, following his departure, from the San Siro to keep his name, achievements and abilities in the game's consciousness manifested itself in various forms; ranging from public seminars to iPad apps and a personal website.
Of course, he is not the first manager to do the latter and certainly not at Chelsea, as Carlo Ancelotti has proved. But while the Italian's stock remains high despite a firing in the bowels of Everton's Goodison Park, Benitez has allowed his to plummet.
He continually talked of waiting for the 'right offer' - no doubt believing that he would be welcomed back at Liverpool with open arms in spite of his misdemeanours and regular petulance - and claimed he had turned down several approaches, from the lean to the lucrative, yet happily threw himself at the mercy of Abramovich and his west London bear pit, and compromised his own beliefs.
Taking a caretaker role, particularly one with a title as demeaning as 'interim first-team coach', went against everything Benitez had preached. Any manager with 12 months remaining on his contract, he said in 2008, was 'dead' while the stability of backroom staff was set at a minimum of two years. Yet he agreed to walk into the lion's den for a position with a maximum lifespan of six months.
That decision looks set to mirror the one of Brian Clough during his infamous 44-day spell in charge of Leeds United; a move which, in hindsight, could have been prevented by burying the hatchet with his trusted deputy Peter Taylor. Similarly, Benitez has been a managerial lost soul since he parted company with former assistant Pako Ayesteran at Liverpool in September 2007.
Attacking Chelsea fans for voicing their opposition to him was also incredibly rich, particularly after his jibe, while at Liverpool, about them 'waving plastic flags'. The club's willingness to allow non-vetted banners for the visit of West Brom, themselves responsible for the demise of two former Blues managers, is a clear indication of how thin their own patience had finally worn.
Criticising Abramovich has become the default, almost fashionable, response in the blame game whenever chaos reigns at Stamford Bridge but this time it appears it is actually Benitez, not the carefree Russian oligarch, who is the problem.