If Rafael “Rafa” Benitez can get fellow Spaniard Fernando Torres playing for Chelsea as he did for Liverpool, then Roman Abramovich’s latest throw of the managerial dice will look like a double six.
Benitez was appointed Chelsea’s caretaker manager on Wednesday until the end of the season, with his immediate task being to shore up a porous defense that has contributed to a run of only two wins in eight games that has left the European champions on the verge of an embarrassing group-stage exit from the UEFA Champions League.
Their 3-0 defeat at Juventus on Tuesday spelt the end of the line for Roberto di Matteo and meant that Chelsea’s prospects are out of their own hands in the final round.
Di Matteo himself was brought in as a stop-gap after the sacking of Andrea Villas-Boas last season, but then got the job on a permanent basis after giving owner Roman Abramovich the “big one” in May. However, “permanent” means something entirely different at Chelsea than elsewhere, as evidenced by the nine managers who have now been in the hot seat in the nine years since the Russian billionaire bought the club.
Villas-Boas, now Tottenham Hotspur manager, lasted a similar time to Di Matteo’s 262-day reign, while Carlo Ancelotti was positively long-serving with his two years.
What Ancelotti, Villas-Boas and Di Matteo had in common was their frustration with the performances of Torres, bought under Ancelotti’s reign for a stunning ￡50 million pounds (US$79.74 million) in January last year.
All three men kept faith with the Spaniard in the face of poor returns before eventually dropping him. However, Di Matteo went furthest, dropping him from Tuesday’s team to face Juventus, despite not having another recognized striker in the team.
Torres has cut a forlorn figure for most of his time in London, but linking up again with Benitez, who bought him for Liverpool from Atletico Madrid in July 2007, could finally kick-start his Stamford Bridge career
“Rafa Benitez has been the most important coach in my career. He has been the only one who knew how to help me improve,” Torres said not in his Liverpool pomp, but a year ago, when he was agonizing over his 25-game scoreless streak for club and country.
The striker has found the net on a reasonably regular basis this season, with seven goals from 19 games, but still looks a shadow of the razor-sharp penalty-box poacher who scored 81 goals in 142 games for Liverpool, including 33 in his first season.
Benitez has been without a club for two years after lasting just six months at Inter and reports said he turned down a short-term deal at Chelsea last season.
The received wisdom is that he is now merely keeping the seat warm for Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona coach who is enjoying a year’s sabbatical from the game, but Benitez will not see it that way.
Just like Jose Mourinho, the man he locked horns with during those classic Liverpool-Chelsea Champions League clashes of the early 2000s, Benitez is his own No. 1 fan and will no doubt expect to make the job his own beyond this season.
Di Matteo got off to a flying start last year when he turned round a 3-1 first-leg deficit against SSC Napoli in the Champions League first knockout round to win the tie and go on to lift the trophy, and then get the full-time job.
Benitez faces a much tougher task, as even if his new team get their expected win over Danish side Nordsjaelland in their final Group E game in two weeks, a draw between Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus in Ukraine would send them both through.
However, the Premier League situation is far more salvageable. Chelsea are currently third on 24 points, three behind Manchester United and four behind Manchester City, who they play at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Success shortens the memory and should a revitalized Torres suddenly start banging in the goals at one end and Chelsea’s defense and stiffened midfield stop leaking them at the other, Benitez will be the toast of west London.