Rafael Benitez: the double is still on
For once, both sets of supporters agreed. “Sacked in the morning,” they sang to Rafael Benitez during the early stages of Manchester United’s match in the FA Cup against Chelsea on Sunday. United were leading 2-0 and Chelsea looked as secure a skyscraper that had been built from the top down.
Benitez, the Chelsea manager, did not look too disillusioned because his natural expression never conveys much emotion. But he did respond – and his tactical intervention did turn around the match to such an extent that, by the end, Chelsea should have won.
Amid chants of, "You don't know what you're doing” (from the Chelsea fans, no less), Benitez took off Frank Lampard and Victor Moses early in the second half, replacing the players with John Obi Mikel and Eden Hazard. Taking off Lampard is never going to endear a manager to the Chelsea fans (Lampard is sacrosanct), but this time the decision was correct. Mikel stabilised the midfield and Hazard enhanced the forwards.
Hazard scored to give Chelsea hope and then Ramires equalised with a fine strike, paving the way for a Chelsea onslaught. Even Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, accepted that Chelsea deserved to win in the end.
Benitez clearly did know what he was doing, which must have been a bit of an inconvenience for those Chelsea supporters who hope he fails.
Unlike after the defeat to Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League last week, Ferguson was not too distraught to talk, but he did fail to shake Benitez’s hand afterwards. The two men do not get along. It seems that Ferguson has never forgiven Benitez for winning the Champions League in 2005.
So what now for United? They have all but secured the Premier League but they are out of Europe. To reach the FA Cup final, they would have to defeat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the replay and then Manchester City in the semi-final at Wembley. Arduous times indeed, but a League-FA Cup double would certainly ease the frustration for Ferguson of the defeat to Real Madrid.
Failure to win the FA Cup, however, would arguably turn the season into one of anticlimax. Yes, winning the Premier League is a great achievement, but Ferguson sets his stall out each summer to win more than that. It bothers him that he has won only two Champions League titles since his first attempt in 1993-94 and no FA Cups since 2004.
It would bother him if the season ended with Benitez winning the FA Cup and the Europa League.