Rafa Benitez was doomed from the start at Stamford Bridge—a man who wasn't Roberto Di Matteo; a man who had fired shots from Liverpool; a man whose "interim" appointment embodied the impatient, short-termist thinking of the billionaire owner by whom Chelsea fans are dictated to.
Roman Abramovich, the Russian whose rubles made everything possible for Chelsea, has bought the right to remain largely beyond reproach in the eyes of the fans—publicly at least. You only need imagine a Chelsea without him to understand to why.
There was no such loyalty owing to Benitez. Chelsea fans were decided the moment his name was mentioned, and they've made it abundantly clear since. It's about more than their innate dislike of him; it's that Benitez is the messy rebound to a season in which they'd fallen back in love with their team.
Chelsea under Di Matteo felt like they had a soul again. A team coached by a beloved former player, driven to improbable feats by a core who bled blue and had come to represent their club in the same way Ryan Giggs does Manchester United and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool.
For a brief interlude in the cutthroat Roman empire, Chelsea escaped their tag as a collective of unlovable mercenaries. Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba were the long-serving legends at their spine; Juan Mata, David Luiz and Ramires among the enviable next-generation talents pointing to an expansive Chelsea future.
Chelsea were likeable; Chelsea were admirable. Yes, Di Matteo parked the bus and put the handbrake on against Barcelona, but who could deny their indefatigable spirit at Camp Nou was worthy of plaudits? To beat Bayern Munich in their own stadium was an even greater feat—one that resonated as a victory for supreme strength of character and total togetherness.
Di Matteo had led Chelsea to the promised land via the meager management experience of a season at MK Dons and two at West Bromwich Albion. His coaching credentials were thin and status no match for Ambramovich's ambition, but Chelsea fans hoped beyond hope the Champions League triumph would buy him some time.
They forgot that the only man buying anything at Chelsea is Ambramovich himself.
Di Matteo won the Champions League and FA Cup in May 2012. He was gone by November, victim to a brief lapse in form, and in his place came a coach whose only previous relationship with Chelsea was on the other side of a fierce rivalry. Nobody can blame Benitez for taking the job; everybody should blame Abramovich for making it available.
Chelsea fans quickly honed in on a target for their frustration. They chanted unrelenting abuse at Benitez and undermined him by holding a minute's applause in the 16th minute of every game to remember Di Matteo (who wore their No. 16 shirt).
On Wednesday it got too much. After an evening spent listening to fans singing, "we don't care about Rafa, he doesn't care about us, all we care about is Chelsea FC," Benitez let it all out during a press conference (BBC Sport).
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Benitez backed into odds-on to leave Chelsea before the season is out, with Mourinho favourite to be his replacement: http://t.co/HzeISPGKez2/28/2013, 9:26:44 AM
Benitez has been widely hailed for his outspoken attack on the attitude of Chelsea fans towards him and the folly of Ambramovich bringing him in as an "interim" manager. Whether it was a calculated power play, as suggested by the Daily Mail, or just the inevitable unraveling of man pushed to the limits, may never be known.
Benitez will be gone by May if not before, regardless. Maybe he knew that already. Maybe this was a way of recovering his pride and making himself more attractive for his next position.
Chelsea fans won't care either way. They want Benitez out and, ideally, Jose Mourinho back to replace him. According to an Evening Standard exclusive, Chelsea "are growing increasingly confident" of securing the Special One's return. They claim "informal discussions" have already taken place and that Mourinho is prepared to work with Ambramovich again.
Benitez's words painted a picture of disloyalty and dysfunction at Chelsea. They were a riposte to the treatment he's received from the boardroom and in the stands, and they were designed to publicly shame all responsible. They may also have been designed as a desperate last attempt to win over hearts and minds there.
It won't work.
Should he remain in charge for Saturday's game against West Brom, Chelsea fans will likely be more violent than ever in their opposition to Benitez. They made up their minds a long time ago, and there's no stubbornness like a football fan wronged.
We're all talking about Benitez. Chelsea fans will already be thinking about Mourinho. If he returns this summer it will be like the Di Matteo sacking and Rafa rant never happened.
They love Mourinho. And they know he loves them back. Benitez never came close in either category.
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