I wouldn’t be surprised if this article got me kicked out of my Chelsea supporters’ group. It’s no secret that Rafa Benitez wasn’t a fan favorite at Chelsea since taking the helm in late November of last year. Demeaning signs and jeers rang out at Stamford Bridge and across the Internet every time fans saw his face. The criticisms died down a bit near the end of the season, but whether that was due to the success the club saw or fans getting tired of staying at such emotionally elevated levels for months on end, I can’t be certain.
Many would like to deny that Rafa had been anything but rubbish, owing any success the club had to the players. Don’t misunderstand me, the players deserve a lot of praise, but anyone thinking a manager player-rotating his way through a record-breaking amount of games in a season doesn’t deserve applause is foolish. Chelsea competed in more tournaments than I can even remember this season, and delved deep into the brackets of each.
While the majority of my fellow Blues supports spit and curse at Benitez’s name, I actually commend him for the job he did. I think he more than completed the tasks he was brought in to do, namely take care of the club and make sure they’re in the Champions League next season. And he’s done that, along with nabbing the club’s second European trophy in two years.
Benitez managed the club to a semi-final in both the League Cup and the FA Cup and while their crash out of the group stages of the Champions League was a disappointment, the club rebounded and took home the Europa League trophy. Any silverware won in a season, and Arsenal fans know this all too well, is a success. To take home a trophy from a European tournament, even if it’s the less popular of the major two, is enough to consider the entire season a win. These deep tournament runs were costly, though. The farther the club went into each cup run the more the games stacked up. Forget juggling these different competitions, the Premier League was also on the line. A finish out of the top four, losing Champions League qualification, would destroy everything the club were hoping to accomplish this year.
But Rafa, in the face of this ridiculous fixture congestion, took the club to a third-place finish, giving them an automatic berth for the UEFA Champions League next season. What’s so impressive about this is the ever-changing starting eleven. Benitez is well known as a squad rotator, and in this particular season I believe it was vital to Chelsea. Rafa was able to stave off fatigue and injury in a league where teams playing half the amount of matches Chelsea played were riddled with both. The only big casualty of the season was captain and center back John Terry, who, in all fairness, has been stricken with injuries for quite some time now.
Also critical to the success of the Blues season was the renaissance of Fernando Torres. While he still may not be the player he was at Liverpool, El Nino has seen his best season for the club since his transfer to London. For all the criticism the striker receives, he was Chelsea’s top goal scorer, with 22 goals, in a season where Chelsea broke their previous record for goals scored in a single campaign. Somewhat less tangible is the impact that many of his goals made in matches. It’s difficult for me to remember any of Torres’ goals in previous seasons being all that critical apart from his goal at Camp Nou against Barcelona in the Champions League. This year, however, Fernando has scored a handful of game-winning goals. His most critical, a composed step around the Benfica keeper in the final of the Europa League, ensured their 2-1 victory and the trophy. If you were to tell me that this wasn’t partially due to his former Liverpool manager, whom he saw his best form under, I simply wouldn’t believe you.
Would Benitez be the right fit for Chelsea in the long run? Perhaps not, but he never tried to be that did he? That was never on the table. This past season Chelsea needed someone who would keep them afloat, qualify for the Champions League, and maybe add a little to the trophy cabinet. Rafa did all that and more. So say what you will, but as a supporter I was thankful to have him at Chelsea. Now, let’s see what this Mourinho guy can bring to the table.