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Five months after taking over the reins at Chelsea, Rafa Benitez was still being ‘booed’ by the so called Chelsea faithful. The ignorant English fan at his worst. However, Benitez has done a fantastic job and has guided them to major European Final success as well as two domestic Cup Semi-Finals and third place in the Premier League.
The Spaniard has kept Chelsea competitive in the league despite the exit of Didier Drogba and with only 22 players who have played 69 matches throughout the season compared with 45 by their opponents Everton on the last day. When Roberto Di Matteo was sacked the decision was widely criticised and yet Benitez has averaged more points and more goals than the Italian did in his 24 league matches in charge. Effectively out of the Champions League on Benitez's arrival he has utilised his immense tactical knowledge in Europe to guide Chelsea past an extremely difficult set of ties, taking them as far as Prague, Bucharest and Moscow before meeting the conquerors of Spurs, Basel in the Semi-Final.
Benitez has managed his squad admirably despite its threadbare status and utilises a rotation policy which is so often mocked but which has been fundamental to Chelsea’s ability to compete on so many fronts with such a small squad. Of the three extremely gifted players in his midfield, Mata, Oscar and Hazard, the latter has competed 90 minutes the most, but only on 26 occasions in all competitions.
Ivanovic is the most used outfield player, but even he has only played a full match in three quarter’s of Chelsea’s games.
Tactically, the chess playing Benitez has shown himself to be incredibly shrewd, slightly altering the traditional 4-2-3-1 system operated by Di Matteo and moving Mata into the middle of the three offensive players behind a lone striker. The move to the centre of the pitch under Benitez has seen the 25 year old Spanish international flourish getting much more of the ball and controlling and dictating Chelsea’s style of play and tempo. He is truly one of the players of the season.
Chelsea have been incredibly disciplined in other phases of play, compact, difficult to break down and solid when not in possession. Their defence had been a major problem before. Expansive, fluid and attacking when they had the ball, when the shackles were truly off as in the second half at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, Quarter Final tie, Chelsea looked excellent. In December they had despatched Aston Villa 8-0 (even missing a penalty).
Whilst watching the Europa League Final on Thursday night, I was reflecting on a poor first half by Chelsea. I remembered that night in Istanbul in 2005 when Benitez’s tactical changes put Liverpool on terms within six minutes of the second half, having been 3 nil down. Whilst sometimes negative in the way that he sits too deep and thus invites pressure, in Europe particularly his teams control the tempo and rhythm of the game. The second half was infinitely better by Chelsea and whilst the excellent Benfica were the better side they contrived to lose. Rafa Benitez can surely take a bow.
Much is made of the fact that he looks to his CV. Given the undeserved criticism from many quarters, he is entitled to point to the fact that he has now presided over 4 European Finals, winning 3 of them. He won La Liga twice with Valencia too, the only team to do it other than Barcelona or Real Madrid since 2000. Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson have been regularly defeated by him and tactically out thought, especially in the crucial games.
I once spoke to Didi Hamann about him and he called him a "genius" telling me that he sees everything. Praise indeed! Benitez and his wife and family love our country and work tirelessly for charity although not much is known about this.
On one occasion my son and two of his friends called at his house to ask for an autograph, on a Saturday evening. Benitez came out to meet them having hurriedly slipped on his daughters ‘Mr Men’ slippers signing a photo for each of them individually and sending them on their way. A true gentleman and humble with it, Rafa Benitez has every right to be smug after his win on Thursday night and this season's achievements, but he has too much class. It is churlish not to acknowledge success because perhaps he is not as media friendly as he could be. He is a winner who manages football with his head and not with his heart. We should learn likewise although I doubt that we will.
John is the author of the posts opposite and is considered by many as one of the most influential agents in English football today. His "no holds barred" approach to the game and frank comments have earned him the respect of some of the countrys greatest footballing minds. His quest is to change the game as we know it and to bring England back to being real contenders on the World stage. You can follow him on twitter @1_footballagent and add your own voice to the cause.