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Inside FutbolInside Futbol


Benitez Claims Chelsea Redemption and Leaves Detractors Eating Humble Pie

As Chelsea’s pursuit of Jose Mourinho heats up in the wake of the Portuguese’s decision to leave Real Madrid, it will be all too easy to forget what Rafael Benitez achieved at Stamford Bridge this season. Whether Blues fans want to admit it or not, Benitez deserves to hold his head high after leading the club to silverware against mounting odds.

From day one, the Spaniard faced hostility at Stamford Bridge but, by clinching a Champions League spot for next season and lifting the Europa League trophy, he provided a timely reminder that he remains one of the game’s elite managers. His mission was to salvage the maximum from a season that was skidding off the rails – and he delivered more than even the most optimistic supporters could have anticipated.

The Blues’ unstoppable end to the campaign has given Benitez’s reputation a welcome boost. He will not have to look far to find other promising situations, having added a third European trophy to his resume in extremely difficult circumstances.

It is hard to fully grasp what Benitez was able to brush off over the past five months. Home and away supporters were often united in booing and jeering the Spaniard, banners demanded his dismissal, and songs called for his predecessor (Roberto Di Matteo). It would have been easy to throw in the towel.

Yet Benitez was able to put all of this aside, coax Frank Lampard back to top form and earn a string of big results, including a 1-0 win at Old Trafford against champions Manchester United and the last gasp 2-1 victory against Benfica in the Europa League final in Amsterdam. At the final home game of the season against Everton, some of the banners reflected sheepish regret at the way that the former Liverpool boss had been treated.

The 53-year-old did not join the team for the end of season lap of honour, but admitted there was satisfaction in the crowd reaction. "I was quite happy with the response of a lot of the fans", said Benitez, who has been linked with the Napoli job and is expected to have a clearer grasp of his options in the coming weeks.

"You can’t change the opinion of everyone but a lot of people realise what we’ve tried to do. You prefer people supporting the team and you, but if it’s not the case you just try to do your job as well as you can.

"Winning finals and finishing third, with a team that finished sixth last year, is quite good. I am really proud because we have a team in transition and you can see young players, playing 69 games and doing well to the last game. I’m pleased for them and really proud."

All eyes will now turn to Mourinho, who is all but certain to take the job that Benitez is vacating. His turbulent spell at the Bernabeu is over and the expectation is that he will soon be announced as the new Blues boss. "The club and manager agree the timing is right to bring our relationship to an end", explained Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, giving Chelsea fans the news that they craved.

But this is a very different Chelsea to the one that Mourinho left behind in 2007, with John Terry, Ashley Cole and Lampard at different stages of their careers and a string of younger players still learning the English game. Transfer funds should be available but no one has forgotten the previous outlay on Fernando Torres, Oscar, Eden Hazard and others. Much of the improvement will need to come from within.

It remains to be seen whether Mourinho will be able to work his magic and close the gap on the Manchester clubs, who are undergoing major managerial changes of their own that will require a period of adjustment. But it all adds to the anticipation for the 2013/14 campaign, which promises to be one of the most tightly contested and tense title races in Premier League history. As for Benitez, he should be a contented man as he prepares for his next challenge.

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