There was dancing in the streets around Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night. Blue and white bunting hung from lampposts, young women blew kisses at passing strangers and “Blue is the Colour” was belted out on many a pub piano.
The carnival mood was inspired not so much by Chelsea’s comfortable passage into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Middlesbrough, but by the news that unloved manager Rafa Benitez would definitely not be staying on in west London beyond the end of season.
Indeed, after the Spaniard’s extraordinary post-match interview with Radio Five Live, there is even serious doubt whether he will still be in charge of the team for Saturday’s visit of West Brom.
The trip to Teesside and the routine 2-0 victory that followed may not live long in the memory, but Benitez’s sensational outburst afterwards will surely become an iconic moment in Chelsea’s recent history.
Read on for more thoughts about yet another dramatic day for the club and its fans…
Since he arrived at Stamford Bridge in late November 2012, Benitez has been booed, derided, mocked and told, in no uncertain terms, that he’s “not wanted here” by thousands of Chelsea supporters.
Until now, he has brushed off the criticism and abuse that has poured down from the stands, insisting that his unpopularity with the fans is of no consequence and would not detract from his focus on performing a professional job for the team.
Something, though, clearly changed on Wednesday. Given that he attacked the club’s hierarchy as well as the fans in his interview, the most likely explanation for Benitez’s rant is that he felt he has not been given sufficient support by Chelsea’s top brass in recent weeks.
Was it just coincidence, for example, that just hours before Benitez’s passionate outpouring of emotion the club issued a statement saying that fans would be welcome to bring their own placards, banners and flags to this weekend’s home match against West Brom?
They didn’t say so, of course, but they might just as well have announced, “It’s Anti-Benitez Day on Saturday, make sure you come fully prepared!”
With the club appearing to give carte blanche to fans to express their anti-Benitez sentiments and the Blues’ interim manager showing distinct signs of strain, Chelsea’s match with West Brom on Saturday will attract enormous attention. Expect it to be the first game on Match of the Day, even if it ends up being the dullest of 0-0 draws.
Will the fans “waste their time,” as Benitez put it, by directing abuse on him? The answer, it seems, is most certainly. David Johnstone, a diehard Chelsea fan who hasn’t missed a Blues match home or away for a decade, has no doubts that the Spaniard will receive a hostile reception when he walks up the Bridge tunnel on Saturday. He told the Daily Mail:
Although Chelsea supporters are happy with the thought that the interim manager may be leaving, most of them would love him to be there on Saturday to give him a final ‘farewell’. If he thinks it was bad at Middlesbrough, he’ll get it in spades against West Brom after what he said following the Boro game.
Come Saturday afternoon, then, it looks as though Benitez will need to be at his most thick-skinned if he is to get through what could be quite an ordeal. If Johnstone’s prediction proves correct, a hard hat and a good pair of earplugs wouldn’t go amiss either.
Until Benitez’s explosive outburst after the Middlesbrough game, the main subplot to Saturday’s match with West Brom was whether Frank Lampard could score the one goal he needs to take him to 200 for the club.
As he approaches this historic landmark, Lamps has shown uncharacteristic jitters, missing a penalty against Manchester City and shooting wildly over the bar on a couple of other occasions in the same game.
Now, though, with the attention of both fans and media firmly focused on the man in the Stamford Bridge dugout, Frank can relax, just play his natural game and be confident that the milestone goal will come sooner or later.
Many fans will be keen to see how Lampard celebrates becoming just the second Chelsea player (after 1960s striker Bobby Tambling) to hit a double ton for the club. Will there be a special T-shirt message as there was when he completed his first 100 in 2008? Or will he reprise the “running round the corner flag” routine he famously performed after scoring the winner in the 2009 FA Cup Final? Or will there be something altogether more flamboyant—a Celestine Babayaro-style backward somersault, perhaps?
You suspect we’ll all find out soon enough.
Getting back to the Middlesbrough game, and something quite unusual and unexpected happened on the pitch at the Riverside. Yes, Fernando Torres scored a goal—only his second of the calendar year.
It wasn’t by any means a classic Torres strike, Ramires’ shot flicking off his back before nestling in the corner of the net but, as they say, they all count. The question now is: Will that lucky goal restore the Spaniard’s confidence and get him back in scoring form?
Sadly from a Chelsea perspective, we have been here many times before so we probably all know what the answer is. However, if Torres were to find his scoring boots again it would prove a timely boost to his manager, the man who was supposed to get “the best” out of the misfiring striker when he was first appointed.
You wouldn’t bet on that happening, though, and the most likely scenario is that both Benitez and Torres will be heading for the Stamford Bridge exit come the end of the season with the jeers of the fans ringing in their ears. (Postscript: Three days later Torres' 'goal' was awarded by interim manager Rafa Benitez to Ramires)