Rafael Benitez finished his term as Chelsea coach having met all his assigned targets. He took over from Roberto Di Matteo with the Blues in the doldrums.
Roman Abramovich gave him two objectives only, secure a top-four finish and win something. Both have been achieved, with a little history being made in the process. Benitez lifted Chelsea to a third place finish, reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and made history by winning the UEFA Europa League having been holders of the Champions League in the same year.
Chelsea exhibited some tantalising football at times this season. Benitez shifted from Di Matteo’s cautious play into a more fluid attacking and counter-attacking system.
He made maximum use of the three “amigos”, Oscar, Hazard and the brilliant Juan Mata over the course of the season. Those three together with Ramires carried Chelsea’s midfield for over 69 games this season, the highest number of games played by an English club. The fact that he managed to keep Chelsea within sights having to be engaged in so many matches is remarkable in itself.
What is perhaps most remarkable about his time at Stamford Bridge was that he had to deal with dissent from the fans almost every time he stepped out to the turf, whether home or away.
Chelsea faithful never really accepted the former Liverpool manager. They never gave him support, especially in the early times of his tenure. They constantly chanted Di Matteo’s name in Chelsea’s matches and once the rumours of Mourinho’s return emerged, they then begun chanting the Special’s One’s name. I can not even begin to imagine how that dented his confidence and ego. If it was a lesser manager, chances are they would not have survived that without crumbling.
Not Rafa though, Rafa has a strong personality. Rafa was not even moved by that, and if he was, he never showed it. He constantly maintained an air of professionalism, dignity and respect, both self and for the club. He never had the sort of out-bursts associated with Mancini at Manchester City.
Benitez also managed to get the best out of his country-man, Fernando Torres. This has been his best ever season at the Bridge. Torres has looked fresher, livelier and more crucially, has been scoring. Torres confessed after scoring in the Europa League final that Rafa gave him renewed confidence, took him under his wing and reminded him that at one time, he was the best forward in the world. That does wonders for a player.
Moving David Luiz into central-midfield was greeted with skepticism by most at Stamford Bridge even though it was perpetuated by John Obi Mikel’s injury. It proved to be a masterstroke.
Luiz became a revelation in that role. He has scored some brilliant and crucial goals since being moved forward. Cesar Azpilicueta was given a starting berth and made a regular under his reign. When asked about Rafa’s influence on him he said that he cannot be more grateful of Benitez.
Frank Lampard went on to break the club’s all-time top scorer after notching against Aston Villa under his reign. Rafael Benitez vocally encouraged the Englishman to go for Bobby Tambling’s record and he duly obliged. Lampard started taking more shots, getting into the box more often than he did under both Di Matteo and Villas Boas.
The result is 203 goals for the club and Lampard etching his name as the greatest Chelsea scorer of all time.
Rafael Benitez overcame a myriad of challenges, knowing he will only be manager until the end of the season (being referred to as interim manager must have been a big-blow to his presence in the dressing room), injuries to key players like Terry, Mikel and Cahill, having to play the first half of his reign with only one recognised striker, going through a gruelling record number of fixtures and worst of all, a hostile support that never accepted him as manager.
Yet he still managed to end the season having met all his assigned objectives on his appointment. Rafael Benitez has proved himself at the despite the odds being stacked against him and deserves all the credit he gets.
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