Rafa Benitez: Has His Time at Chelsea Been a Flop or a Success?
When former Inter Milan and, perhaps more poignantly, Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez was appointed as "interim manager" of the European Champions back in November of 2012, it is fair to say that the Chelsea fans were slightly less than happy with his arrival at the Bridge.
Continuously met with a chorus of boos before every home fixture for the best part of his time at the club, Rafa was seemingly never able to win over the vast majority of fans. In truth, a huge part of this unpopularity was the title slapped on his job position the moment he arrived.
Chelsea fans were never going to be happy that a former Liverpool manager, who had once spoken ill of their club, was taking over from their Champions League-winning manager, Roberto Di Matteo. But instantly referring to Rafa as "interim" gave the London Blues faithful all the more reason to continue their unrelenting animosity towards the Spaniard.
With the knowledge that Rafa was out of the door at the end of the season (barring a miraculous turnaround in the Champions League or EPL), there was never any reason to really get behind their manager and support him.
If you know something or someone is going away in the near future, then it is human nature not to form any kind of bond or attachment to them. With Rafa already unpopular before his time as Chelsea boss, and with the knowledge of his departure at the end of the season, he was never going to win the fans over.
But with all this in mind, has Rafa's time at Stamford Bridge been a productive one for the now-Europa League champions? Or has that hatred and scorn from Chelsea's supporters been an accurate reflection of his reign?
One obviously has to make the point that last night, Chelsea, under Rafa's leadership, managed to bring back the Europa League trophy against an incredibly talented Benfica side. The victory means that, for a week at least, both the Champions League and Europa League trophies will be located at the Bridge.
Chelsea were admittedly a class above the majority of their rivals in the Europa League, but as has been evident on countless occasions in the tournament before, pedigree isn't everything (As Manchester United and Manchester City will tell you from last season).
Once the champions of Europe slipped down into the competition, it never really looked like they weren't going to eventually walk away with the silverware. Their performances were clinical, and the tactics from Rafa spot on. Say what you like about him, but the man knows how to win European trophies.
Many would at this point cite the fact that Chelsea were only in Amsterdam last night because of their failings in Europe's elite tournament, the EL's older brother, the Champions League. In a group which contained Juventus and Shakthar Donetsk, Chelsea struggled and eventually found themselves being the first defending champions in the history of the tournament to go out in the group stages.
However, it is crucial to remember that for the most part, this Champions League failure all occurred at the club before Rafa's appointment (in fact, it was the driving factor in the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo).
Six months on, Was Rafa a good (temporary) replacement for Di Matteo?
On the European front, Rafa is completely blameless and has made the best of a very bad situation. Even his solitary Champions League game with the Blues, a 6-1 demolition of Nordsjaelland in the final round of group games, nearly gave them a shot at reaching the last 16 of the competition.
As such, from a European standpoint at least, Rafa's time with Chelsea has been one of relative success. But what about domestically?
When he took over the Blues in November, Chelsea were on a slump that had seen them concede the lead of the Barclays Premier League to bitter rivals Manchester United. It was a period when a new manager coming in (whether rightly or wrongly) really needed to steady the ship and get his side back on winning ways.
Rafa's first game was admittedly not an easy one, at home to the then-champions of England, Manchester City. The match finished 0-0 and was, to say the very least, a lackluster affair.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, this brand of performance seems to have haunted them for the majority of their league campaign this year, with defeats to Newcastle, Southampton, West Ham and QPR all heavily damaging any chance they had at finishing in the top two.
Silly mistakes and terrible results meant that Chelsea's top-four security was not even guaranteed until this past weekend, when two Frank Lampard goals (which made him the club's all-time leading scorer) led them to a scrappy 2-1 victory over struggling Aston Villa.
Still, however shakily they went about it, the fact is that Chelsea will be competing in the Champions League again next season. That being said, taking a side from challenging for the Premier League title to narrowly avoiding missing out on a top-four finish is certainly not what you would want with a change of management. Rafa has been poor in the league, focusing far too heavily on Chelsea's European commitments.
In the domestic cup competitions under Rafa, Chelsea have enjoyed a mixed bag. In both the League Cup and the FA Cup, the Blues progressed to the semi-finals of the tournament, before eventually succumbing to Swansea City and Manchester City respectively.
Despite bringing home no silverware in the tournaments, one could make the argument that finding themselves in the final four of both competitions was a success in itself.
In regards to the FA Cup, there can certainly be minimal blame heaped on either players or manager, with a hearty performance against Manchester City (off the back of an impressive win against United) not quite enough to make it through to the final.
In the case of the League Cup, however, there is little excuse, with two awful displays against Swansea costing Chelsea another piece of silverware—say what you want about the importance of this particular tournament; it is still a title worth fighting for.
So all in all, it has been a rather unconvincing time for Rafa in England, but a decent one on the continent. This is somewhat typical of his managerial record, and it is becoming a running theme for most foreign managers and owners to favor Europe above domestic concerns.
Coming into this position and finding himself being oppressed by a wall of unrelenting hatred couldn't have been easy for Benitez. It wasn't his fault that Di Matteo was sacked, and after all, he was just trying to do the best job he could for the club.
On top of this, there is only so far a manager can be blamed for bad results. Sometimes the buck shouldn't stop with him. At the end of the day, the manager can do the best job in the world, but if those 11 men on the pitch aren't performing, there is not a whole lot to do to salvage the situation.
So on Rafa's time at Chelsea? Hit and miss. It's a frustratingly inconclusive summary, but with Benitez not being given a chance to show what he is made of in the Champions League, excellent success in the EL and abysmal failure in the EPL, its hard to pitch yourself in one camp or the other.
I write this article from a neutral perspective, and I'm aware that a lot of Chelsea fans are probably unhappy how the season has gone. But if they want to find a man to blame, then it isn't Rafa Benitez—it's Roman Abramovich, whose policy on the firing of managers has severely hampered Chelsea this campaign.
Whatever your view, one thing is for certain; in the limited time that Rafa had at the club, he stirred up one heck of a lot of discussion and debate!
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