FOX Soccer Exclusive
Chelsea fans give Rafa raw reception
Just about the first thing Montse Benitez did after her husband Rafa became coach of Liverpool in 2004 was to learn in full the words of the club’s famous anthem, "You’ll Never Walk Alone," so she could sing along with the fans before every home game.
It would not have taken her so long to memorize the short and to-the-point ditty with which Benitez was welcomed to Stamford Bridge for his first game in charge of Chelsea – and she certainly wouldn’t have been tempted to sing along.
Basically it suggested that he should go away and, in case the unsanitized language of the hard-core supporters left any room for doubt, added: "You’re not welcome here." A legacy of Liverpool’s successful Champions League clashes with Chelsea in 2005 and 2007 and, in particular, a remark about the Anfield atmosphere not needing the "plastic flags" with which Bridge crowds were issued, it lasted the whole first half, on and off. But the good news for the Spaniard was that the support’s mood improved with the performance thereafter.
A scoreless tie with the English champions was the outcome and, if that sounds unexciting, bear in mind that Chelsea has been anything but tight and organized since its season turned for the worse four weeks ago, and it was the visit from the other Manchester giant that changed everything. Before United came calling, Chelsea had won seven of its opening eight games and tied the other (average 2.75 points). Now the return from the past five games is two losses and three ties (average 0.6 of a point).
Just as big a shift has taken place in terms of the club’s perception. Before the stormy encounter with United, Chelsea was on the point of being loved. The club had brought the European title back to England and, again guided by the steady hand of distinguished ex-midfielder Roberto Di Matteo, bravely changed style for the new Premier League season, majoring on flair rather than the defend-and-break approach that had seen off Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the concluding two rounds of the Champions League.
Then United and, even more so, referee Mark Clattenburg got under Chelsea’s skin. Clattenburg sent off two of its players, Fernando Torres and Branislav Inanovic, and the club took adversity badly, reporting the match official for "inappropriate" language that was supposed to be racial in tone. Clattenburg vehemently denied it and the nation took his side. The ref’s stance was vindicated when first the police and then the Football Association threw out the allegations.
Had Chelsea then apologized to the innocent Clattenburg, who still hopes to earn the honor of being England’s referee at the next World Cup in Brazil, then we might all have moved on. But it bears noting that under the ownership of Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich, Chelsea has quickly built a history of questionable accusations against referees, starting in Barcelona in 2005 with Anders Frisk, who quit the game after receiving threats, presumably from twisted Chelsea fans. Abramovich is not an owner who apologizes. And therefore this is not a club we can view fondly again for a while.
Even a large percentage of its own fans has been disenchanted with Abramovich of late, since the popular Di Matteo was relieved of his duties after a Champions League loss to Juventus, and replaced by Benitez. But because Abramovich has ploughed around $1.35 billion into the club in his eight and a half years of control – and because sugar daddies that sweet don’t come along every day – there was never any chance of overt demonstrations against him. Instead his hireling Benitez faced the full treatment.
In the best part of four decades covering soccer, I have experienced nothing quite like it in terms of fans attacking their own. The scorn was interrupted by a minute’s pre-match applause to mark the death of former coach Dave Sexton, under whom the club won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971, but soon it resumed. It might have got worse had Sergio Aguero not missed the best chance of the first half.
Afterwards, Benitez denied having heard the insults, saying: "During a game, I just concentrate on the pitch. I wasn’t paying attention to anything else. I can understand how the fans feel because of the rivalry of the past. But I am a professional. I want to win games for the club and for them - I want us to win together."
City’s Roberto Mancini had earlier been asked how Benitez could be accepted and replied "win, win, win, win, win" and Benitez didn’t deny that.
But Benitez knows he is only keeping the job warm for – in Abramovich’s dreams – Pep Guardiola. Even the official team-sheet described Benitez as "interim first-team manager". That might not be so bad. It would just be nice to avoid the abuse. If only for Montse’s sake.
Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.
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