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Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Chelsea's Benitez trapped in no-win situation


LONDON — Imagine going to work each day and no matter how well you do, your popularity rating struggles to rise above zero. You produce good results for your employers in your first month, yet you are still vilified.

Christopher Davies

In your own mind you know you have little chance of changing the opinion of the masses whose minds are so made up it would be an admission of weakness for them to admit they were wrong.

Welcome to the world of Rafa Benitez, interim manager of Chelsea.

It was not his fault that Roman Abramovich sacked the extremely popular Roberto di Matteo for no logical reason (he wasn't the first to receive a senseless thumbs-down from the Roman emperor and won't be the last) but somehow the Spaniard is held responsible.

His first eight matches in charge have seen four wins, two defeats and two draws, including a 1-0 loss to Corinthians in the final of the Club World Cup, a competition that means so much in South America but in Europe is perceived as a punishment rather than a reward for winning the Champions League.

The Blues could win the Premier League, Europa League, Capital One Cup and F.A. Cup under Benitez, which at any other club would guarantee iconic status. Chelsea is not any other club, though; it is a club where success is invariably followed by the sack while whatever Benitez achieves, the Stamford Bridge rebels will be unforgiving.

In the eyes of Chelsea fans, Benitez was critical of the club while manager of Liverpool when he twice outwitted the alleged Special One, Jose Mourinho, in two Champions League semifinals. Benitez has thick skin and his salary more than compensates him for the ongoing public protests; yet if plaudits are too much to expect, a truce would help the team, which should be a priority for all supporters, in the second half of the season.

Chelsea's capacity for surprise is far from exhausted — managerial changes have long ceased to raise eyebrows — but the venom directed towards Benitez (none towards paymaster Abramovich) showed no sign of subsiding, even after the 5-1 thrashing of Leeds in the Capital One Cup quarterfinal at Elland Road on Wednesday, 48 hours after returning from Tokyo.

It was no major surprise that Chelsea won, but to shrug off tiredness and jet-lag so impressively underlined its inner spirit while the ridiculed Fernando Torres scored his 13th goal of the season and significantly, except in the eyes of the anti-Benitez brigade, his sixth in his last five matches.

Victory over an improving Aston Villa Sunday could close the gap on second-place Manchester City to four points — Chelsea also has a game in hand — and though Benitez's assertion that it can still land the title struggled to find a seconder, it would be dangerous to write off a team that has shown time and time again it can defy the odds (ask Barcelona and Bayern Munich).

John Terry, disliked outside of Stamford Bridge but still a huge influence at Chelsea, is ready to return after injury and his steadying influence will be needed alongside David Luiz who, within a 10-minute period, can defend like Bobby Moore or Demi Moore.

The midfield axis of John Obi Mikel, Juan Mata, Oscar, Ramires and Eden Hazard is the best in the Premier League and for all his detractors, Torres is on course for a 30-goal season. Chelsea is a magnet for negativity, much of it self-imposed.

As much as I dislike the way the club is run and the unacceptable (mis)behavior of certain players, we must not lose sight of the fact most are good, solid, highly skilled professionals and I expect them to be in at the business end of all four tournaments, winning at least one.

* * *

ADEL Taarabt wants to represent Morocco in next month's African Cup of Nations. Queens Park Rangers manager Harry Redknapp has asked the influential midfielder to stay and help the club in its fight against relegation.

Taarabt said: "Harry has asked me not to go, but I told him: 'If they call me, I can't refuse, boss. I love my country.' "

I wonder if Redknapp would ask an England international to put club before country?

* * *

THE coleading scorer in the Premier League is Michu of Swansea with 12 goals. That is probably the most surprising statistic of the season to date.

The Spaniard was far from prolific during his days with Oviedo and Celta but 15 goals in 37 games for newly promoted Rayo Vallecano last season was a sign of things to come.

Michu, 26, has been sensational and at £2 million represents arguably the best bit of summer transfer business in the Premier League.

In five years at Genk, Christian Benteke scored 20 goals in 51 appearances plus 24 in 70 games on loan to Standard Liege, Kortrijk and Mechelen. Impressive figures, but the Belgium striker, 22, was an unknown quantity when he signed for Aston Villa for £7 million in August.

The top clubs are asking themselves how two such outstanding strikers slipped through their net. The answer is good scouting and the willingness to take a chance on players who were not household names but are now.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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