Rafael Benitez is expected to be given at least one more match in charge at Chelsea, despite his rant criticising Blues supporters and the club’s decision to give him the title of interim manager.
Benitez launched an impassioned monologue following the holders’ 2-0 FA Cup win at Middlesbrough on Wednesday, which set up a quarter-final tie with Manchester United. His criticism sparked suggestions his tenure in caretaker charge could have come to an end yesterday, rather than as scheduled at the end of season, with the comments unlikely to have gone down well with owner Roman Abramovich and the Blues board.
But Chelsea insisted it was just another day at Stamford Bridge, where reports of dressing-room unrest have been played down.
A club spokesperson said: “It’s business as usual.”
It is understood Benitez took training at the club’s Cobham base yesterday morning and is likely to be in charge for tomorrow’s Barclays Premier League clash with West Brom, where the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge and taunts towards the manager could be more toxic than usual. The “business as usual” statement is reminiscent of comments made by one of Benitez’s predecessors, following the departure of Roberto Di Matteo last November, when the Spaniard was placed in charge.
Andre Villas-Boas, now in charge at Tottenham, said: “At Chelsea, I think another sacking is just like any other day at the office.”
It seems the addition of “interim” to his title has irked Benitez since his appointment and he finally erupted following a fourth win in six games – a run which was preceded by just three wins in ten.
In 27 matches, Benitez has 14 wins and a victory percentage of 52 per cent, which – alongside Villas-Boas – is the poorest start of any of the nine managers in the Abramovich era. The reaction of the former Liverpool manager in confirming his departure at the end of the campaign is likely to heighten speculation over his replacement, with former boss Jose Mourinho – now at Real Madrid – reported to be the top target.
Whoever replaces Benitez will become the tenth manager in ten years under Abramovich. Never before has the Russian had three managers preside over his team in one season but, should Benitez depart before the end of the campaign and ahead of fulfilling his brief of Champions League football next term, that is what will happen.
With Mourinho and the most likely alternative options in employment, Abramovich could turn to a familiar face in Avram Grant, who was pictured alongside the Russian as a spectator at the recent FA Cup defeat of Brentford. Israeli Grant guided Chelsea to the 2008 Champions League final but departed after Manchester United won the trophy in Moscow on penalties.
The Champions League was for so long the Holy Grail for Chelsea. Di Matteo was initially in charge on an interim basis before he guided Chelsea to a maiden title in Europe’s most prestigious competition, plus FA Cup victory, and was granted the role on a permanent basis.
When the Italian departed after the holders’ Champions League exit at the group stage, attention turned to Pep Guardiola, who was on a season-long sabbatical after leaving Barcelona. Guardiola has opted for Bayern Munich, though, and attention has returned to Mourinho – the most successful manager in Chelsea’s history. The Portuguese led Chelsea to two Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups and one Community Shield but his time in west London came to an acrimonious end following a series of disagreements with Abramovich. Chelsea go into the weekend contest with West Brom in fourth place – the final Champions League spot – with a two-point lead over Arsenal and a deficit of two points to third-placed Tottenham.
Defending champions Manchester City are second, seven points better off than the Blues, while Manchester United are on course for the title, with 19 more points than Benitez’s team.
Champions League football next term is the over-riding priority – the consequences of missing out could be cataclysmic – and Chelsea’s chances of a trophy this term depend on the FA Cup and the Europa League.
Whoever the manager is when Chelsea play at Old Trafford on 10 March, Victor Moses is optimistic of success. He said: “United are probably the toughest team (left in the competition). We have quality players here, they have good players, too. If we work together as a team, I can see us really going far and beating United.”