Benitez feeling the blues
Quandary … Chelsea's manager Rafa Benitez reacts during the semi-final against Swansea. Photo: Reuters
SINCE Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea almost a decade ago, his club have finished the season without a trophy only three times. The first was in 2003-4 under Claudio Ranieri. He was sacked 16 days later. Avram Grant was manager the second time, in 2007-8. He was sacked three days later. Carlo Ancelotti also failed to win a trophy in 2010-11. And he was sacked in record time, within two hours of the season ending.
Behind the furore surrounding Eden Hazard and a 17-year-old Swansea ballboy, the significance of Chelsea blowing their best chance of finishing this campaign with a trophy should not be overlooked. Including the Community Shield and the European Super Cup, Chelsea have conceded their chance in five competitions in five months.
In November, when Rafael Benitez replaced Roberto Di Matteo, the new manager was still able to talk of five remaining ''big opportunities'' for silverware. He cannot be blamed for the Champions League exit but he was presented, on a plate prepared by Di Matteo, with outstanding chances in both the Club World Cup and the Capital One Cup. Failure will have not gone unnoticed by Abramovich.
With an 11-point gap to Manchester United in the Premier League and the Europa League representing little more than a consolation prize, Sunday's FA Cup tie at Brentford suddenly takes on huge significance. It also presents Benitez with a considerable quandary.
Having gone all out with what was surely his best team against Swansea, including Demba Ba rather than Fernando Torres as the main striker, does he now risk major changes at Brentford?
The expectation is that John Terry, Ryan Bertrand and Marko Marin may return at the expense of Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole and the suspended Hazard.
It has been a puzzling two months for Benitez, with the highs of an 8-0 demolition of Aston Villa and wins over Arsenal and Everton tempered by too many indifferent performances. For Chelsea, the most alarming aspect of losing to Swansea was the failure of an attacking unit worth well in excess of £100 million ($151. million) to score in 180 minutes.
Ba did not take his chance when he was picked ahead of Torres while Juan Mata, Oscar and Hazard - produced performances that had far more in common with how they had finished - rather than started - Sunday's 2-1 win against Arsenal.
''We are inconsistent,'' Gary Cahill acknowledged. ''We know that when we played Villa we smashed them 8-0 and then we go and have sticky results here and there. Potentially it is fantastic. We have players who can hurt teams and if we can get that consistency we will be a real threat.''
Petr Cech, a model of reliability, identified three distinct phases in another rollercoaster season. ''We had a good start to the season but then there was the Super Cup where we didn't turn up, which was a huge surprise, and then everything was going downhill,'' he said.
Recent experience still suggests that Chelsea are well capable of finishing strongly, especially if the core of Terry, Lampard, Cole and Cech do again find their rhythm amid the uncertainty that surrounds yet another manager. ''We are still in the FA Cup, the Premier League and the Europa League,'' Cech said. ''Nothing is finished yet. These are trophies that we can still win.''
There is also no sense that Benitez's job is in peril and the Chelsea hierarchy have been impressed at some of the organisation he has brought to the team.
However, past history suggests that Chelsea must finish the season with something tangible to show for another year of turbulence.