Rafa Benitez is a lucky man, and inexplicably so. His immediate predecessor Roberto di Matteo received his marching orders despite having a considerably better record than the Spaniard, over the same number of games with Chelsea this season. And yet, contrary to every impulse that must be racing through Roman Abramovich’s frayed nerves, the former Liverpool boss could very well hold on to his seat until the end of the season.
Smoother characters, adored by Chelsea’s True Blue hordes, have met their sticky end at Roman’s sword for reasons as flimsy as having a bad hair day. Which makes it all the more surprising then that Rafa Benitez, often mistaken for one of Cromwell’s Roundheads, would manage to leave the free-wheeling pink-slip dealing Abramovich totally flummoxed when it came to firing him.
Part of Benitez’s seemingly impervious Kevlar reputation and Teflon hide, stems from the inescapable fact that there is simply nobody out there to replace him. There is the off-chance that Roman Abramovich could go grovelling back to Roberto di Matteo, but that would involve an admission he isn’t infallible – something that will come as news to the fawning Bruce Buck.
Rafa Benitez, has cleverly played into the clear discomfort Chelsea would feel at seeking another managerial replacement this season, by publicly throwing his name into the ring for the post of Chelsea manager next season. By setting his target so unabashedly high, he’s gambling that Roman Abramovich will reply in the negative – but effectively let him complete at least this season. By aiming for the stars, with his sputtering spaceship of a record at Chelsea, Rafa Benitez is gambling he’ll at least touch down at a lunar base.
That kind of cynicism is breathtakingly Machiavellian, even if it should leave every Chelsea fan with the chills.
Suppose for a moment Roman eventually breaks free of Benitez’s hypnotic hold, before the end of this season. He’ll dive right into thumbing through entire dossiers for his replacement. You can bet Gourlay and Buck will join him on what will prove to be a futile hunt.
But perhaps, while scouring the Earth from Anaheim to Auckland for a replacement, Roman’s minions have overlooked the most obvious place for the next person to take charge. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time they missed the obvious – Chelsea’s board wouldn’t know a great opportunity even if they were holding on to it for dear life, and Eden Hazard kicked it out from underneath them. Looming ominously in the background at Stamford Bridge, are two personalities so large you’d have to order an extra diet coke just to wash them down.
Frank Lampard and John Terry know their careers are unlikely to see a return to old highs, as they trudge along slowly but surely into the sunset. But these are not men you cross, in any circumstance. As Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Villas Boas found out, there’s little room for maneuvering once you run afoul of the dressing room cabal. The board’s current preferred way to “break free” of their influence would be to let Lampard leave and reduce a nervous John Terry to a diminished role in the side.
But if Chelsea’s recent run of results are anything to go by, the Blues have no players of mettle in the current side. Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar have failed to stamp their authority when the team finds itself in dire straits. Ivanovic has been uncharacteristically error-prone, Cahill’s taken a few steps back in his development and Fernando Torres is now the second most unpopular person at the Bridge.
Roman Abramovich finds himself in the unenviable position of putting his squad rejuvenation master plan on ice – a “crime” for which he’s fired at least two managers in the recent past. Having to choose between getting rid of the old guard, and holding onto the character they bring his team, Roman could – in theory – attempt something novel that gives him a measure of both.
Appointing Frank Lampard as player-manager for the rest of the season, gives Abramovich the wiggle room he so sorely needs. Once Lampard is showed in no uncertain terms that his expertise is more valued on the sidelines, it opens up avenues for Chelsea’s midfield talisman to choose the manner of his own phasing out. It also papers over the recent cracks in the relationship between board and supporters at Stamford Bridge, that appeared in the aftermath of Roberto di Matteo’s firing and the subsequent appointment of Rafa Benitez.
There’s also another immediate beneficiary. John Terry will welcome the implicit rise in his influence, courtesy a Lampard regime that will be more amenable to Terry’s muscle flexing than a professional manager’s would be. Lampard, who graciously let John Terry hold aloft the UEFA Champions League trophy with him, is likely to be unperturbed by Terry’s increased assertiveness. With the two most powerful voices in the side, now actively running the squad, Roman Abramovich need no longer worry about them doubling up and under-cutting another of his managerial appointments.
There’s another advantage for the Russian: as John Terry’s advanced age catches up with him, Terry will likely seek or be given a partial managerial role himself next season. That will mean the task of ushering Lampard out or reducing his position, will fall to John Terry. Which makes for very interesting viewing for Roman Abramovich, bucket of popcorn and all. Frank Lampard, ever the gentleman, will either voluntarily leave the side to join the MLS or an equally lucrative foreign league, leaving only a solitary John Terry for the board to deal with.
In a way, everyone involved saves face. Roman leaves the unpopular decision of phasing Lampard out, to Lampard and Terry themselves. Lampard gets to stay on with the squad in a partial-player role with the option of choosing the timing and nature of his own retirement scheme. And John Terry gets to avoid the missteps that plagues Lampard’s long walk into oblivion.
The only thing that prevents this extended fantasy from playing out is Roman Abramovich’s inevitable reluctance at ever ceding control – temporarily even – to Frank Lampard and John Terry. If he does, he could end up winning the endgame. As for Rafa Benitez saving face, 8 months ago nobody would have given him a shot at managing the defending European champions. Don’t put it beyond him to carve himself out a position on Chelsea’s board.
Stranger things have happened.