Chelsea's Rafa Benitez: Booed, Unwanted, Hated, Europa League Winner
Rafa Benitez crowned off a very good interim period in charge of Chelsea with a UEFA Europa League winners' medal.
He took the club to the semifinals of the FA Cup only to lose to fellow powerhouse Manchester City, then completed his minimum league goal of achieving Champions League football for next season.
The Blues' still have a semi-meaningless game on the schedule against Everton on Sunday, but Wednesday night's triumph in Amsterdam is how the public will remember Benitez rounding off his time at Stamford Bridge.
When the Spaniard leaves his post next week, he will sit back in his comfy armchair, sip on a glass of red wine and smile to himself: He did a fantastic job in the face of true adversity.
Rafa's smiles out on the pitch of the Amsterdam ArenA were in stark contrast to the facial features on display for his first game in charge back on 25 November.
Boos rang around Stamford Bridge, fans prepared signs of disdain printed in the finest coloured ink, and anti-Benitez chants were absorbed by every corner of the stadium.
His first few games were unimpressive—two 0-0 draws preceded a 3-1 loss to West Ham, and "negative tactics" were talk of the table.
He won himself zero fans inside the first month, and one goal from his first three games was hardly the antidote required to smooth over his complicated past with the fans.
But an 8-0 thrashing of Aston Villa at home put smiles on their faces, and from there the Blues began to stride forward in fearsome fashion.
He stuck to his 4-2-3-1 formation, eased Oscar back into the side and unlocked the very, very best in Juan Mata.
Eden Hazard recovered from his dip in form to put consistently scintillating performances, and Rafa somehow managed to juggle four competitions and continued to win—even though one of them had his team traipsing through Romania, Czech Republic, Russia, Switzerland and, finally, the Netherlands.
On occasion Chelsea looked limp and lifeless on the pitch. In particular, against Europa League opposition, off-the-ball movement was nonexistent and some of the players looked disinterested.
But Rafa coaxed the best out of Fernando Torres on the continental stage, and the Spaniard finished the season with nine UEL strikes alone.
In the final, he deployed Ramires on the right side of his 4-2-3-1 to take advantage of the space left by the marauding Lorenzo Melgarejo. It was another strong tactical stroke that saw his Brazilian dynamo cause Benfica all sorts of problems.
Had he displayed offside awareness, Chelsea could have scored two more through his intelligent runs.
As disgruntled as Blues fans have been, Benitez's season has been full of minor victories: He's on course for a better winning percentage than Claudio Ranieri, Roberto Di Matteo and Andre Villas-Boas, while he's also pushed Torres to a total haul of 22 goals.
Chelsea fans will never like Benitez. He had the chance to apologise for his comment regarding "plastic flags" in 2007 but never did so, and that nonaction only fueled the hatred.
But Rafa earned the respect of the footballing world outside of West London on Wednesday, even if Chelsea fans will (rightly) never forgive him.
He walked in a lion's den—an unbearable, unattractive job. He emerges slightly scathed, but with a trophy win firmly under his belt. His C.V. is intact, and the Spaniard will walk into another high-profile job with his head held high.
In the meantime, Chelsea fans can thank Rafa for guiding them through a ridiculously tough schedule that clocked up more air miles in one year than many do in a lifetime.
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