Chelsea’s well-deserved 1-0 victory over Manchester United in their FA Cup quarter-final replay at Stamford Bridge on Monday afternoon has fully justified head coach Rafa Benitez’s much-publicised and controversial team selection on the South Coast two days earlier.
The Spaniard was heavily criticized from all quarters in the immediate aftermath of the West London club’s surprising 2-1 defeat at struggling Southampton in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon, a match in which the Blues had made a number of eye-catching team selections.
Benitez was accused by all of trying to beef up his already impressive managerial CV by wanting to add yet another trophy to it at the expense of trying to secure Chelsea a place in the top four of the Premier League come May.
This jeopardized a spot in next season’s Champions League, an end-of-campaign target which the club’s hierarchy had made an absolute priority for the manager when he agreed to take over from Roberto Di Matteo last November.
However, not only were these arguments disingenuous, they also completely misunderstood Benitez as a top-level manager.
For starters, the likes of substitutes Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Eden Hazard and Demba Ba had all played for their countries in competitive fixtures during the international break, unlike their fresher replacements at St Mary’s.
Another sub, Brazil midfielder Ramires, was struggling with a groin injury while Gary Cahill was injured and Juan Mata was ill.
And with the club facing the exertions of having to play in two must-win fixtures in the space of three days, Chelsea’s starting XI pretty much picked itself against the Saints—not that one would have known that from reading the match reports the following day.
Not only that, but to also hear the many post-match cries from both the press and Blues supporters that the former Valencia, Liverpool and Inter Milan head coach was only selfishly interested in massaging his managerial portfolio was simply laughable.
For one thing, how many coaches are there in world football who actually like losing? And if there are any out there—I do not know of any—then I suggest they think of a change of vocation.
Whether you like Benitez or not, one thing is for sure: The Madrid-born trainer is a winner. Always has been and always will be, hence a CV that stands up to scrutiny with the very best coaches currently operating on Planet Football.
And that was what the Spaniard was trying to do against Mauricio Pochettino and company on Saturday, but clearly still with one eye on Monday’s stiffer examination against United.
In the end, the Saints proved a far harder test than the Premier League champions elect.
Benitez wanted to beat Southampton, and United too preferably, as he wants to win every game when he takes charge of the Blues or any other club for that matter.
However, what he was obviously doing was playing a dangerous balancing act involving team selection and the fixture list—something he was an expert at while coaching Liverpool and often forced to juggle his lineups between key Premier League fixtures and massive cup ties.
And almost always, he got the balance just right.
Benitez would have looked at the top-flight standings on Saturday morning, the fixtures that Chelsea have coming up, the fitness levels of the players who he had available to him after international duty and then decided on his starting XI.
If you had given him, or Chelsea fans for that matter, the choice prior to kickoff on Saturday between winning one of their Bank Holiday fixtures, then it is a no-brainer to opt for the United match.
As of now, not only are Chelsea still in the Cup with a great chance of winning two trophies this season—yes, both of those will end up on Benitez’s CV and I suspect that's something Arsenal fans would not turn their noses up at—but Champions League qualification remains very much in their own hands as they lead fifth-in-the-table Arsenal by two points and trail third-placed Tottenham Hotspur by only two, but with a game in hand on Andre Villas-Boas’s men with just eight matches of the season now left to play.
And if you look at the three respective teams’ top-flight run-ins between now and May 19, you would back the Blues to secure that coveted top-four finish—even with what looks like severe fixture congestion along the way.
After the United victory, Benitez shared his approach to the season's homestretch with BBC Sport's Phil McNulty:
The priority for us is to finish in the top four but in a top side you have to keep in every competition and try to win it.
The race for the top four will be up until the end of the season but we are in the top four with a game in hand, we are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the Europa League quarter-finals, so it is a great season so far.
The much-maligned Spaniard is right in what he says about the potential for this campaign in West London to climax in glory, although you’d be hard-pressed to ever hear anyone at the Bridge use the words “great season” and “Benitez” in the same sentence.
Maybe if Rafa gets his juggling act just right, all three targets can be achieved. Much as Chelsea fans may find it hard to believe, that would greatly please the Spaniard as he departs the Bridge this summer.
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