Chelsea Stay Alive in FA Cup as Rafa Benitez Cracks Under Stress

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Chelsea Stay Alive in FA Cup as Rafa Benitez Cracks Under Stress
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Rafa Benitez used to say he doesn't mind the pressure. One way or another, he won't have to for much longer.

With rumors swirling and pressure building on their interim boss, Chelsea advanced to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup on Wednesday night with a professional—if somewhat less than showstopping—2-0 win at second-tier Middlesbrough.

The win should—though it probably won't—ease some of the anxiety around Stamford Bridge, and with silverware still a possibility, it might even forestall Roman Abramovich's notoriously fast trigger finger for another few weeks. Not that the pressure is entirely gone. Nor is it anything new.

"I don't have a problem with pressure," Benitez said as early as December (per the Daily Telegraph), a matter of weeks into his tenure as caretaker manager.

By Wednesday night, he seemed to have changed his mind:

Now the question becomes whether Benitez will be in charge the next time Chelsea play in the FA Cup. Next up is a trip to Old Trafford on March 10 to face runaway Premier League leaders Manchester United.

Sandwiched between the two legs of Chelsea's Europa League Round of 16 tie with Steaua Bucharest, the United clash already held huge importance before Benitez's bombshell Wednesday night. Now the match almost becomes a date with the firing squad.

Win—and advance in Europe—and this disjointed season could be on the path to unlikely glory. Lose and Benitez could very well be out of his misery a couple months early.

Stu Forster/Getty Images

If that seems harsh, consider this. Even before reports of unrest between Benitez and captain John Terry broke out of the Chelsea camp (via Rob Beasley, The Sun), the Blues had already been linked heavily with multiple managers, including Malaga's Manuel Pellegrini (via The Independent).

Never beloved—or even accepted—by the fans, Benitez is unlikely to remain at Chelsea beyond the season. Interim managers rarely stick, with the obvious and notable exception of Roberto Di Matteo last season.

Yet even Di Matteo's story should be instructive. As he showed so memorably, winning can keep you in the hot seat, but only for so long.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

So as Chelsea went into halftime level with Middlesbrough at 0-0, Benitez must have felt the pressure. The Spaniard made eight changes to the squad that lost at Manchester City over the weekend, with Terry returning to central defense and reprising his captain's role.

The changes produced little in the first 45 minutes. Chelsea's play resembled the choppy Middlesbrough pitch, and the Blues produced only two shots, one of which was blocked (per Opta).

Then, when Ramires—who is becoming a bit of an FA Cup specialist—curled a deflected shot into the net early in the second half, the feeling changed. Holding a precious 1-0 lead, Chelsea looked demonstratively more relaxed.

By the time Victor Moses finished off a slick team move in the 73rd minute, the Blues already had a foot in the quarterfinals.

Once they get there, it will be the same thing all over again. The pressure will be present, but so will the possibility of reward—not to mention the best and most dangerous team in England this season.

Benitez should be there too, unless some grim fate befalls him in Romania next week. But after Wednesday night's outburst, it's impossible to say so for sure.

 

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