Rafael Benitez cannot afford to return from Japan empty-handed
You would find it difficult to find a less-loved competition in England than the Club World Cup – squeezed into an already congested calendar of winter fixtures, held thousands of miles away and featuring usually hugely mismatched teams, it is very much the runt of the global football trophy litter.
Chelsea’s new manager Rafael Benitez will be taking part for a third time; although it is unlikely that he has a much higher opinion of the competition. While the trophy was the last that the 52-year-old won, as manager of Inter Milan in 2010, he probably doesn’t reminisce about the time with much fondness because six days later he was unemployed – a situation that remained unchanged until his appointment at Stamford Bridge last month.
His first outing in the competition will also bring back unhappy memories, as his 2005 Champions League-winning Liverpool side narrowly lost out to Brazilian Copa Libertadores winners Sao Paulo. While this defeat was of little consequence to the Spaniard, then happily ensconced at Anfield – it is a situation he will be desperately trying to avoid repeating, particularly given the parallels that can be drawn with his unhappy stint in Milan.
Now, as in 2010, he is not the manager who led the club to glory in Europe’s most illustrious competition. He has inherited this Chelsea side from Roberto Di Matteo, just as it was very much Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan two years ago, and while perhaps no manager in world football inspires such fierce loyalty from his players as the celebrated Portuguese, Di Matteo was nevertheless hugely popular in the Chelsea dressing room.
Despite the difficulties of taking over from the man who delivered the first treble in Serie A history, Benitez almost undoubtedly faces a sterner task now in winning over the fans at Chelsea. Usurping a much-loved former player – who had delivered the one major trophy missing from the club’s cabinet – would have made life uncomfortable enough, but Benitez’s past role as Chelsea’s European bête noire, has made him one of the most unpopular managerial appointments in footballing history.
Much of the fans’ vitriol towards Benitez is undoubtedly unfair, particularly considering his much-publicised, anti-Chelsea quotes from the past were mostly either a justified defence to provocation from the arch-goader Mourinho or in some cases totally fabricated but given undeserved legitimacy by the all-powerful agent provocateur that is Twitter.
While the anger of Chelsea’s supporters over the sacking of Di Matteo is justified, their frustrations are surely misdirected and would be better focused at the decision making of their despotic Russian owner. Abramovich, not Benitez, is to blame for the axing of the popular Italian and while the club’s recent years of success have come thanks to his billions, so have ludicrous levels of managerial instability and a less than flattering public image.
Although back-to-back victories over Nordsjaelland and Sunderland have alleviated some of the pressure on Benitez, the Spaniard still has a challenge ahead of him and cannot afford to come back from Japan empty-handed. While his very recent appointment means that Club World Cup failure is unlikely to see a repeat of his 2010 post-tournament sacking, it would surely not be hyperbole to suggest that, given his current level of popularity and the fickle nature of his paymaster, it could mark the beginning of the end.
You can follow the writer on Twitter: @thesportsfoxTagged in: chelsea, football, Premier League
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