Rafa Benitez proves Chelsea fans wrong

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It is often said that it's not over until the Fat Lady sings. Last night there was no Fat Lady in Amsterdam, but there was a certain Spaniard who’s served Benfica some just desserts for switching off in the final moments of their Europa League final.

Branislav Ivanovic made the leap of faith to direct a looping header into the Benfica goal off Juan Mata's corner to steal victory for the Blues in the last minute of added time in regulation. 

Having weathered the storm early from the Portuguese side, Chelsea dug in and eventually prevailed 2-1 with a strong second half showing.

Rafael Benitez, Chelsea's 'interim' manager, has had all sorts of unwarranted abuse hurled at him. The moniker used above just happens to be one of those that the Spaniard has garnered thanks to Blues fans. 

Benitez's appointment was met by a massive wave of rejection by sections of the Chelsea support who took no time in expressing their disenchantment with the new manager. One would have thought that the animosity would extend for a few games and peter out afterwards. 

But, the banners, not to forget the legendary A4 printouts that became quite the rage, came to be regular parts of the facade from the home support at every home game.

All of it was unwarranted and contributed to one very hellish environment in which to operate. Rafa though has endured and emerged victorious in the  face of all the negativity. Steve Kean at Blackburn Rovers was the last manager to endure such a torrid time from the home fans; but that was well deserved, Rovers were rock bottom and both the manager and management didn't seem to have the slightest clue on how to turn things around. 

But, this is Benitez, an accomplished manager known to be a smart tactician with a good grasp of cup competitions especially in Europe.

Rafa has achieved all the objectives that the club had tasked him with. When he took over from Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea were on a run of two wins from eight games, and there existed the very real possibility of them slipping out of the top six and missing European football next season altogether. He steadied the ship and  ensured that they will be playing Champions League football next term as they look set to finish third behind the two Manchester clubs. 

Yesterday's Europa league crown is a fitting farewell gift from their Spanish manager, checking off the box that said 'cup win' which may have been given to him.

Aside from meeting the main objectives, Benitez has also improved the side. Chelsea under Di Matteo claimed the Champions League trophy last season founded on stout defending and enjoyed a healthy serving of good fortune along the way. Come this season, RDM got the word from owner Roman Abramovich to play a more open game with lots of fluid attacking play. Chelsea got the players for it - in came Oscar and Eden Hazard, in addition to the ever-present Mata. And Abramovich got his wish, as Chelsea dumped the direct approach to play some breathtakingly football. 

Trouble was though, their defensive shape and that led to them conceding too many goals. Once that was achieved, the fluent, attacking stuff returned under Benitez.

When Benitez walked in, many feared that Chelsea would turn to a more pragmatic style of play with rationed offense, especially so after his first two league games ended 0-0. But, Benitez was simply addressing the primary issue of getting the team to defend better, even if it meant curtailing the attack for the first few games. 

He got players into a proper shape, got them to track back when they lost the ball and gradually eased out John Terry from the line up, put Ivanovic in his favoured centre-back position to partner Gary Cahill and promoted a proper right back in Cesar Azpilicueta. 

The Spanish full-back gave them the much needed solidity on the right flank, good going forward as well and allowed Ivanovic to play at his best position, where he plays for Serbia as well. Along with the exceptional Ashley Cole, this made for a much more organized and tighter back-line.

David Luiz is a guy with exceptional ball skills and he has lots of heart to go with it. Rafa smartly began employing him in a defensive midfield role from where he could not only shield the back-line, but also with his exceptional ability initiate attacks. 

John Obi Mikel used to do more of a mop up work in that role and was terribly stunted for ability. This in turn allowed Frank Lampard to operate from a deeper role and for Ramires to roam forward as an attacking outlet.

Eden Hazard made quite the impact when he started off. But the Belgian saw his game time limited with Benitez's arrival. To many Chelsea fans, this was a perplexing decision and led them to unload even more on their manager. Hazard, for all his wonderful play, was very reluctant to track back and help out in defence and many a time early in the season, Chelsea used to get caught out on the break when the trio of Oscar/Hazard/Mata surrendered the ball up field and left them exposed at the back. He was also being overworked. 

The break did Hazard a world of good, as he came back fresher and with some defensive commitment to go with his explosiveness up front. Oscar was given a better run as he showed better defensive mettle.

Of course, the story wouldn't be complete without mentioning the return to form of Fernando Torres. 'El Nino' scored a wonderful goal last night to give Chelsea the lead. 

The last time, the Spaniard looked so confidant was the last time he was with Benitez, at Liverpool before that £50 million move to the Bridge. In addition, Rafa has managed his squad superbly with optimum squad rotation required. Chelsea at the weekend will host Everton in their final league game; it will be their 70th game of the season!

The Spaniard has also shown his tactical nous in games where his in-game adjustments and changes have altered the course of the game. Even last night, the first 25 minutes belonged to Benfica as Chelsea sat too deep and got overrun. 

The Blues have played a more possession-based style of football in Europe with Luiz coming into the centre of midfield. Last night, they failed to string together passes as Benfica pressed them hard forcing them to surrender the ball. 

At half-time Benitez made the slight adjustment and told his team to employ a more counter-attacking approach, something which we have seen Real Madrid do and they managed to hurt Benfica with that in the second. 

The FA Cup game against Manchester United was another fine example of this.

Rafa Benitez is a master of the cup competition. He won the 2004 UEFA Cup with Valencia, the 2005 Champions League with Liverpool and now the Europa League with Chelsea in 2013. Benitez has conducted himself in a thoroughly professional manner in the face of all the stick that he has received, barring that famous February outburst. 

But anyone whose been subjected to such a hostile reception is entitled to that one explosion. Yesterday, post the trophy presentation his message for the Chelsea fans was to simply enjoy the moment.

Benitez will walk away with his head held high having performed exceptionally well in the circumstances and those haters amongst the Chelsea fans should thank him for shepherding the club out of trouble. The 'Spanish waiter' has served up quite a treat for Blues fans and it's high time they got off his back and doffed their hats to a man who has performed a terrific job as their 'interim' manager.

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