Chelsea's managerial merry-ground looks set to crank into action yet again, with signs in place that Rafael Benitez is already yesterday's man. In ten years of covering the story of this club, I've seen seven managerial sackings: and each time a subtle pattern of behaviours and words comes to the forefront in the run-up.
February 25th, 2013
The manager himself starts to give monosyllabic pronouncements that mean less and less: he knows where we are right now. Those in the know seem to start rolling their eyes in reaction to the incumbent: there’s plenty of that going on at the moment. And players become unsure as to which briefing they are following both on-pitch, in terms of haphazard performances; and off it, in terms of interviews with the press: that one is in evidence too.
On that last point I tend to take take Petr Cech as a good bellweather: will of iron; Mr Dependable; student of psychology. Unquestionably the most level-headed footballer on Chelsea’s books. When he starts to wobble in interviews, you know a change is nigh: it was there before the sackings of Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo. Last week, asked whether Chelsea had improved since Benitez took over, he paused for thought.
One second: pained expression.
Two seconds: tries to form the words.
Three seconds: returns to pained expression.
“Well. We had some… We had some… Very good… games. We had some… games… where we dropped, uh… points.”
Chelsea are in a particular bind right now. The club is well aware that they need to take action before season ticket renewals close in early May: simply because so many supporters have made it clear that they will refuse to renew should there be any suggestion Benitez will remain in-post. There is also the spectre of a looming disaster some weeks before that: with Chelsea to visit Liverpool on Sunday 21st April. Even at Anfield there is concern for the circus that is likely to be played out, should Chelsea’s deeply unwanted former Red come up against Liverpool’s former Blue Brendan Rodgers – himself walking a tightrope in the popularity stakes. A circus where Benitez potentially returns to the home of his former glories, as head of a rival troupe – and Ringmaster of all he surveys. And anyone who knows Chelsea, knows the Stamford Bridge Circus is only permitted one Ringmaster – cracking his whip from a far-off super-yacht.
There is a feeling right now Benitez is one, perhaps two, bad results from the sack. Manchester City was bad – both in terms of performance (or lack of one) and result. But defeat away to the champions was largely expected. Middlesbrough would be hugely embarrassing were it not to go the right way, but ‘only’ a cup. West Brom, the team that saw off both of the previous two incumbents and counts another former Chelsea coach in Steve Clarke as boss, could well be the one.
There will have been hours of agonising over this at Chelsea Board level: they have known for quite a while that Benitez must be dispatched. And the main thing keeping him in place has seemed to be a lack of an interim ‘interim’ to take the tiller to the season’s end. With Avram Grant sharing the directors’ box canapes with Roman Abramovich in the last week, could that one sticking point now be unstuck?