As a Liverpool fan it pains me to say it, but Chelsea’s next manager should be Rafa Benitez. The Press seem adamant that the path is clear for a triumphant home-coming for crowd favourite Jose Mourinho, but the chances of that are between zero and zilch. Mourinho is nothing if not smart and he knows the work required to return Chelsea to the top is not so much cosmetic as of excavation proportions.
Mourinho acolytes rightly point to his impressive record of success wherever he’s been, but they are decidedly less vociferous when the conversation turns to his squad-building prowess. Everywhere Mourinho has enjoyed success he has inherited either the strongest squad in that country (Porto and Inter) or arguably the strongest squad in the world (Chelsea and Real). Mourinho’s three stand-out signings over his career thus far have been Drogba, Essien and Ozil, but all three were already world class footballers coveted by Europe’s top clubs.
With Financial Fair Play on the horizon, Mourinho would need to make not just obvious signings, but astute ones too. So far in his career, astute signings have been conspicuous by their absence. Not so Benitez, who has signed several players whose values sky-rocketed after he signed them, such as Torres, Reina, Alonso, Mascherano, Arbeloa, Agger and Lucas. That he bought these players to replace the likes of Dudek, Traore, Biscan, Smicer, Baros, Cisse and Kewell, whilst pretty much balancing the books, is further testimony to his squad-building skills. Sure he signed some duds along the way, but Robbie Keane aside, they were usually either free or cost less than a few million pounds.
Judging by the haphazard tactics and team selections of Andre Vilas Boas, it is uncertain whether he ever had a clear vision of where he wanted to take Chelsea. But whatever hopes he had of implementing change were always destined to flounder on the rocks of Terry, Lampard, Cole and company. AVB had neither the nous nor the CV to take on the Big Players at Stamford Bridge, but Benitez has both.
When it comes to the skills required to win a two-legged tie, Benitez has shown himself to be inferior to nobody
When he arrived at Liverpool, Benitez inherited an almost identical problem where four English players held a similar vice-like grip over the dressing room, namely Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Danny Murphy and Michael Owen. Benitez’ solution was to sell Murphy, effectively sell Owen (by making no effort to talk him out of a move to Real Madrid) and get Gerrard and Carragher onside by selling them his vision for the club. So effective was Benitez in dealing with the egos that it was Gerrard’s camp and not the clubs, who broke the infamous contract impasse twelve months later.
In appointing Benitez, Roman Abramovich would also greatly improve his chances of securing his personal Holy Grail; the Champions League. When it comes to the skills required to win a two-legged tie, Benitez has shown himself to be inferior to nobody, winning a UEFA Cup, a Champions League and reaching another final, all against massive odds (the latter two having thoroughly out-foxed Mourinho along the way).
Like all managers, Benitez has his short comings, namely his cold man-management skills and his inability to play the media game (although many would consider this reluctance to deliver tiresome Mourinho-like sound bites to be more a virtue than a fault). However, his tactical astuteness, ability to replace mediocre players with great ones and excellent track record of winning trophies more than compensate for these. And, who knows, he could even get Fernando Torres to play like a £50m footballer. After all, he got him to play like one at Liverpool.
Benitez’ detractors often argue that his style of football is negative, but the evidence doesn’t support this. Throughout his tenures at Valencia and Liverpool, his sides played quick, one-touch, counter-attacking football, always finishing at - or near - the top of the scoring charts. True, his teams could also play incredibly defensive, hold-what-we-have pragmatic football (as seen in several Champions League ties) but they were also capable of going to places like the Nou Camp, Bernabeu and San Siro and taking the game to the home sides, winning at all three venues. Besides, if Benitez’ brand of football is unpalatable to Chelsea fans then Mourinho’s must be downright vomit-inducing.
Perhaps this whole argument will be rendered redundant by the appointment of Pep Guardiola, but if the Barca boss declines the inevitable offer, Abramovich should pull out all the stops to secure Benitez’ signature – as vomit-inducing as that would be to us Liverpool fans.
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