Rafa Benitez Deserves Credit for Securing Chelsea's Champions League Dream

Garry HayesFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2013

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MAY 11: Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez gestures from the touchline during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Chelsea at Villa Park on May 11, 2013 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

On a weekend when Sir Alex Ferguson and Frank Lampard have grabbed the headlines for obvious reasons, the achievements of Rafa Benitez at Chelsea have slipped under the radar once more.

It may pain Chelsea fans to admit it, but the Spaniard has helped mastermind a successful season for the Blues that has seen them not only qualify for the Champions League next season, but they will also compete in the Europa League final on Wednesday.

It hasn't been plain sailing by any stretch, yet Benitez deserves credit for transforming Chelsea's season from one destined for failure, to a year of even more success on the King's Road.

On the back of everything the club achieved last season like winning the Champions League against Bayern Munich in such dramatic circumstances, 2012/13 by contrast has been a considerable reality check.

Benitez arrived at Stamford Bridge in November with the club in turmoil. The Blues were not so much on their knees, but with Roberto di Matteo fired and elimination from Europe's premier club cup competition all but a formality, they were veering incredibly off course.

Call it a sign of how bad things were or simply a coach learning the function of his team. It has taken time and effort, but Benitez has steered the Blues back to where they were hoping to be—competing for silverware and returning to the Champions League.

The journey en route has been an unpleasant one, sure. There have been venomous protests from supporters angered with his appointment, shocking home defeats to the Premier League's bottom club QPR and even rants in the media about his treatment from the club and its fans.

It's all been worth it, though.

Chelsea defeated Aston Villa 2-1 at Villa Park on Saturday to all but secure a top-four finish in the Premier League. They've reached the semifinals of the FA Cup and Capital One Cup this season and come Wednesday, could become the first club in English football to complete a rare European grand slam by lifting the Europa League (adding to their Champions League, Cup Winners' Cup and Super Cup successes).

Rewind back to the morning of Nov. 21 when news first broke of Di Matteo's departure and most Chelsea fans would have taken that. In fact, with the club's rebuilding process in full swing last summer, the majority would have probably accepted that fate in August when the season kicked off.

Benitez has delivered on what he was brought to the club to achieve.

Opinions as to the virtues of his character and history with rivals Liverpool firmly to one side, Chelsea fans are not in a position to complain.

After 12 league matches under Di Matteo this term, the Blues picked up an average of two points per game. Benitez has been in charge for double that time, taking 48 points from his 25 Premier League matches (1.92 per game). He's taken a fraction less than his predecessor, yet given all that has passed, it's remarkable the Spaniard has got this far.

In his post-match interview with BBC Sport following the Villa win, Benitez was asked if he could in fact be Chelsea manager next season based on what he's achieved in the past six months.

"What do you think?" he laughed. "I don't think so."

If rumors of Jose Mourinho's return to West London this summer become nothing more than that, Chelsea could do a lot worse than drop the interim from Benitez's job title.