Reading vs. Chelsea: The Underdog Comes Back to Bite Benitez Again

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2013

Chelsea players look dejected after surrendering another commanding lead
Chelsea players look dejected after surrendering another commanding leadMike Hewitt/Getty Images

It was a criticism of him during his time at Liverpool, and so it has proven again for Rafa Benitez at Chelsea—when facing the underdog, he seems to come out worse off.

The Blues had built a commanding 2-0 lead against Reading on Wednesday, but with three minutes remaining at the Madejski Stadium, they threw it away. Adam Le Fondre scored the first of his two goals on 87 minutes, and with seconds remaining in stoppage time, expertly leveled for the Royals to seal an unexpected draw.

Given the week Chelsea have endured, crashing out of the Capital One Cup to Swansea City and then being held 2-2 in the FA Cup by League 1 Brentford, it was a bitter pill to swallow for Blues fans. Perhaps more so for Benitez given the way his tenure is going.

Chelsea have played eight of the teams currently in the lower half of the Premier League since he was appointed interim manager in November. Of those, the Blues have won just three, drawing three and doing the unthinkable by losing to West Ham United before a 1-0 loss at home to bottom club QPR.

It's a nasty statistic and one that gets worse when reflecting upon the nature of those three draws. Against Fulham in late November, the Blues looked limp and offered little in attack against a team that had arrived at Stamford Bridge without a win in five matches.

More recently, Chelsea have lead Southampton and Reading 2-0, and on each occasion they have thrown the game away by conceding sloppy second-half goals.

For a team whose fans constantly like to remind the opposition of their status as European champions, it's a record not befitting such a title. European champions shouldn't be dropping points from such commanding positions. They shouldn't be surrendering leads, and they shouldn't appear so vulnerable.

Despite all the success he enjoyed as Liverpool manager—winning the Champions League and FA Cup—Benitez was never able to taste Premier League success, as the Reds so often slipped up against weaker opposition.

Liverpool finished second to Manchester United in 2008/09, losing out on the title by four points. It was their best league finish under the Spaniard, but that season the Reds dropped points against Hull City and Wigan Athletic and lost to a relegated Middlesbrough.

Sure, seasons are defined by much more than a few games, but victory in two of these three matches the Reds should have won and the title was theirs. Manchester United didn't make such mistakes, and they won the league. It's why they will win the title again this season.

As he has proven now, Benitez couldn't overcome struggling teams in 2008/09, and Liverpool came up short as a result. Chelsea are doing the same.

In contrast, the Blues' record against the so-called bigger clubs cannot be faulted. Under Benitez they have faced Manchester City, Everton, Stoke City and Arsenal, dropping points only in a goalless draw with league champions City. Taking 10 points from a possible 12 in those fixtures is an excellent record for any team.

On one hand, Benitez could maybe be offered sympathy, as Chelsea's problems are very much the defensive issues that led to Roberto Di Matteo's dismissal. He's inherited them, after all, but on the other hand, they are the very problems he was brought in to iron out. So far, he hasn't.

Results were kind to Chelsea this week, with Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal also dropping points, giving them some comfort in third position. But it's not every matchday their rivals will come up short and more defensive frailties like those witnessed at Reading and Champions League football could evade them next season.