After Chelsea triumphed in dramatic fashion over league-leaders Manchester United in Monday’s FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge, the most infamous interim manager in the world, Rafa Benitez, lauded the Blues’ 2012-13 season as a “great” one.
The problem with that statement, of course, is that any Chelsea supporter or football fan who has watched the Blues throughout this campaign knows that the results have been far from “great.”
In fact, Blues keeper Petr Cech, one of the world’s best, disagreed with Benitez’s assessment. The Czech international has been a part of truly exemplary Chelsea squads, and he rightly knows that this particular iteration is far from it.
The fact of the matter is, Chelsea crashed out of the Champion’s League in the group stages. They currently sit at fourth in the Premier League with a game in hand, which is good enough for CL qualification next season, but even that position seems to be tenuous at best. Being in the FA Cup semifinal is nice for minnows like Wigan and Milwall, but for Chelsea it does not a great season make.
While the vast majority of bile and vitriol has been cast in the general vicinity of Benitez, I don’t believe that the interim manager is to blame for this substandard season from the Blues.
Nor do I believe it’s fair to place the weight of the mediocrity on the shoulders of Fernando Torres. Yes, the former world-class striker has been an epic flop in his time at the Bridge, but he’s one player, and Chelsea has known for a while that Torres hasn’t been up to snuff.
No, the fault does not ultimately lie with the players or Benitez. The blame should be placed on one man and one man only, and that man is the owner, architect, and (sometimes) benevolent dictator of the club: Roman Abramovich, whose decision making has oft resembled that of a sailor after too many pints of ale.
As long as Abramovich is making twitchy-fingered decisions, Chelsea will never soar to the perennial heights of clubs like United, Bayern and Barcelona, the last of which being the club that the Russian oligarch seems determined to morph Chelsea into.
While Abramovich has always fancied rashness, it seems as if that particular brand of decision-making has been especially en-vogue over the past few years.
The downfall of this current Chelsea side came in January 2011, when Abramovich purchased Torres from Liverpool for £40 million euro, despite the consternations of then manager, Carlo Ancelotti.
It was clear at that point that the Blues needed creativity in the midfield, not another striker, but Abramovich didn’t care to consult his manager on the decision, despite Ancelotti winning the league and FA Cup double in the previous season.
Torres flopped, and Chelsea finished second in the league to United. One would think that Abramovich would look at Torres’ play, which clearly lacked inspiration, imagination and creativity, and point his finger at the Spaniard. But then, Abramovich would essentially be blaming himself, and that has long been a sticking point for the Russian, who instead sacked Ancelotti, a year removed from the double.
Abramovich’s next decision was to hire Portuguese wunderkind Andre Villas-Boas, fresh off his treble at FC Porto. Promises were made to the man known as AVB, that he’d be able to remake the aging Chelsea squad in his vision.
Of course, AVB lasted until February before he received the sack from Abramovich, following a disheartening, first-leg Champion’s League round-of-16 loss at Napoli.
While AVB struggled with the Blues' veteran locker room and in press conferences, often making up words and fantastical concepts, there’s no doubting his acumen as a football manager, and he’s proved his prowess with his performance at Tottenham this season, guiding Spurs to likely Champions League qualification.
In the wake of AVB’s dismissal, Abramovich got lucky, as former Chelsea player Roberto Di Matteo was appointed interim manager, and RDM led the Blues down a majestic journey toward both the FA Cup and Champions League triumph.
Of course, Torres was on the bench for all of these victories, as Didier Drogba, five times the player that Torres is, was busy scoring goals and leading the charge.
One would have thought that Abramovich would be giddy with the result, happy with what RDM was able to accomplish with a squad that didn’t even come close to matching the quality of some of Abramovich’s best sides in his time as owner.
In the summer, with Drogba moving on and Torres the only proven option up front, Abramovich opted to splurge on Belgian winger Eden Hazard and Brazilian central attacking midfielder Oscar. Both of these players, particularly Hazard, represent fine quality, but they aren’t front-line strikers, and the club desperately needed one (or two).
Instead, Abramovich stuck with Torres, seemingly unwilling to admit his gigantic transfer blunder.
So, it should have been no surprise that Chelsea didn't play like one of the world’s best squads. Di Matteo’s reign would only last into November, when Abramovich sacked him following a 3-0 Champions League group-stage loss at Italian giants Juventus.
Out of all the firings that Abramovich has ushered, perhaps none was more shocking than this one. Di Matteo was beloved as a player and manager, and will forever live in Blues lore for the incredible accomplishments under his stewardship in 2012. Yet, Abramovich discarded him as easily as chum off of one of his expensive yachts, infuriating the Chelsea fanbase.
Abramovich then decided to bring in Benitez as the interim manager, and the move was met with derision. Benitez had long been a Blues enemy from his time at Liverpool, and he was unwelcome at the Bridge. But, Abramovich didn’t care. He does what he wants, often at the detriment of his club.
In addition to not winning enough games, Benitez has also taken shots at the Chelsea fans and board (read: Abramovich), but has still managed to keep his post. How is this possible?
Answer: all inane things are possible under the stewardship of Abramovich.
Stunningly, it appears as if Benitez has prioritized silverware over Chelsea qualifying for next season’s Champions League, as he sat several of Chelsea’s prominent players last weekend in an embarrassing loss at Southampton.
The Blues did manage to win in the FA Cup 48 hours later against United, but shouldn’t qualifying for the Champion’s League be the primary objective? Instead, it looks like Benitez is seeking to add trophies to his own CV, undermining the very man who granted him the position of manager.
So now, Chelsea finds itself in the Europa League and fighting for a fourth-place finish in the Premier League. There will be no Champion’s League title this year to save them from next year’s Europa, should they finish outside the top four.
For this, the blame lies on one man and one man only: Abramovich.
If Chelsea is to ever find itself once again amongst the world’s very best, the Russian must cede control of the decision-making. I'm not saying he should sell the team, but when it comes to him making the tough calls for the Chelsea board, he must do the unthinkable: