Wow. Even by Roman Abramovich’s standards, the past few days at Chelsea has been a whirlwind and as the Blues prepare to host champions Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, where do you even start with the events that unfolded this week?
Everybody knew that Roberto Di Matteo was the most glamorous caretaker in the world and that he would be removed as soon as a suitable replacement was found, in spite of his achievements in winning two trophies, including the one the owner coveted above all others, in a six-month spell.
But even this time last week, as the Italian took Chelsea to his old club West Bromwich Albion, there was little sign of the axe falling so ruthlessly, so quickly, but just three disastrous days later, Di Matteo was toast.
A defeat at the Hawthorns all but sealed his fate, but the dismal showing in Turin and the defeat to Juventus that leaves their Champions League hopes in tatters was the final straw for Abramovich, who has acted swiftly to swap one Champions League winner for another.
Not that you would know it from the reaction of the Chelsea fans, who seem to have taken to Rafael Benitez’s appointment like a man who has just been told Gary Glitter is moving in next door.
In the tribal world of football, some of this reaction is understandable: as Liverpool manager, Benitez was at constant loggerheads with then Blues boss Jose Mourinho and wasn’t exactly slow at sniping at the west London club over a range of issues, from the fact money was the only reason for their success to the lack of passion among the fans compared to their Anfield counterparts.
But there seems to be a huge portion of the Chelsea support not only looking to decry Benitez’s personality, but also his managerial achievements, and to these people I say wake up.
I have never been able to understand the criticism of Benitez from the majority of fans in this country, nor why he seems to be painted as some incompetent buffoon who lucked out one night in Istanbul.
A CV that reads two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup with Valencia as well as a Champions League and FA Cup with Liverpool, not to mention a second European Cup final and a second-placed finish in 2009, is better than anybody in the Premier League bar Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger and I really don’t understand the mockery of such an outstanding record.
To win the Spanish league with anyone other than Real Madrid or Barcelona is exceptional, while to win the Champions League with Djimi Traore and Milan Baros is borderline miraculous.
Benitez has made mistakes and is by no means perfect – his six-month stint at Inter Milan showed that. But for me, Chelsea are getting an excellent coach with a point to prove and the arrangement seems to suit both parties.
What his appointment does do, however, is make the game against Manchester City impossible to call. Chelsea are the slight favourites at 6/4, with the champions at 17/10 and the draw at 23/10, and there are so many unique mitigating factors that make the latter the safest bet.
How will the crowd react to Benitez at kick off? How will Benitez set up his team, given that it is two years since he last picked a starting 11? Are the players, with the exception of Fernando Torres, happy with the appointment? Indeed, can Benitez get the best out of Torres, as he did at Liverpool and as Abramovich desires?
It’s a step into the unknown for everyone, but from a punting point of view we are in the dark here. Chelsea have won one of the last eight matches, but is that stat now relevant?
For City’s part, they are coming off the back of a week where their exit from the Champions League was rubber stamped and if Roberto Mancini isn’t in danger yet, he will be if there is another repeat of that European campaign.
No wins in five group matches, especially when Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund spanked Ajax in Holland, is pathetic, and no amount of excuses is going to hide that, Roberto.
At home, things are looking better, with City top of the league prior to the weekend’s action (Man Utd went top with yesterday’s 3-1 win over QPR) and unbeaten in 12 league matches.
But City haven’t been too hot away from the Etihad, with two wins and three draws from five fixtures, and failure to beat West Ham and Stoke, as well as losing to Madrid and Ajax in Europe, doesn’t make want you to pile into that 17/10, even if you would say that City are the more accomplished side when on song.
Both Benitez and Mancini tend to err on the side of caution, especially in the big matches, and both would be quite happy to avoid defeat here. With that being the case, I think the draw is the way to play at 23/10.