Well it wasn’t anything to get excited about, but there was nothing really to be disappointed with either. The Chelsea fan base has made its demands of Rafa extremely clear. Those select few it seems willing to show tolerance and patience to our new interim will only do so if results and performances remain consistently perfect.
Of course our performance wasn’t perfect but I think to see such an improvement so quickly with our defence was very pleasing, especially after a month now of conceding two goals regularly (or more). Against probably the best attacking team in the league I thought we looked very comfortable at the back. Petr Cech didn’t have a single difficult save to make. Cole was world class, Ivanovic and Luiz looked very good together also, but most impressive for me was Azpilicueta at right back. Up against David Silva and Aleksandr Kolarov, he didn’t put a foot wrong. Already at 23 he seems to understand his position perfectly. I rate Ivanovic as a right back very highly but now I think Azpi warrants a regular starting position – which will of course allow Terry to partner Ivanovic at centre half when he returns from injury. In our captain’s absence neither Cahill nor Luiz have really laid down a claim for a place in the XI. It’ll be interesting to see if either are given one once we’re back to full strength.
At the start of the game it appeared we weren’t doing anything differently compared to the last few weeks – a few subtle changes however began to make themselves clear after a while. The major difference was the lack of creative freedom afforded to our playmakers. Mata stayed uncharacteristically wide, working the overlap well with Azpi but not doing much in the final third. Eden Hazard also did a lot more to assist Ashley Cole than usual, helping deal with Pablo Zabaleta who had a good game. Ramires’ position seemed deeper and more fixed as well.
We dealt with set pieces and crosses much better than we have been recently. A clever hybrid of zonal and man-to-man marking meant that all 11 of City’s corners were dealt with easily. The use of Ivanovic and David Luiz as a CH partnership (something di Matteo never tried) also worked well – the two of them being indisputably, two of the best defensive headers of the ball in the world. Oscar’s position behind Torres didn’t really change but Torres himself was coming a lot deeper when we didn’t have the ball, dropping alongside the Brazilian to help sure up the midfield.
There’s no doubt in this fixture we simply sacrificed creativity for solidity. Everywhere Benitez has worked his initial priority has always been the improving of the defence before he permits more attacking freedom, so there is definitely reason to believe our shots/shots on target stats will improve quickly. As Michael Cox expertly pointed out for The Guardian yesterday, this season the three main title challengers (ourselves and the Manchester Clubs) all have fantastic individual players, especially in attack, but so far we’ve all lacked cohesiveness/solidity, which means ‘Benítez’s caution might prove a successful antidote’.
I think ultimately, if you looked hard enough past the overall drabness of our attacking play, there was quite a lot of encouraging little signs. None of these of course received much media coverage, with the headlines mainly focused on the remarkable levels of hatred, directed toward Rafa Benitez by the Chelsea fans. Freedom of speech is important in football but I believe there is a clear line where an effective emotional protest becomes a personally insulting hate-campaign driven by spite and ignorance – and we flew past that line even before the game had kicked off. I was ashamed.
The banners in support of di Matteo and the applause during the 16th minute I thought were nice touches, but to be honest, after of all the “fuck off Rafa” chants it came across as artificial martyrdom. Di Matteo deserves to be commemorated for what he achieved and fans have every right to be disappointed over his sacking, but I don’t think they much right to be outraged and it certainly doesn’t justify their treatment of Benitez. This is because of two reasons. Firstly, Roberto’s sacking obviously wasn’t Rafa’s fault and I’m certain di Matteo wouldn’t want to see his replacement subjected to that sort of abuse – perhaps we should think about showing some of the class we respected Robbie so much for having all through his tenure. And secondly, if you are or ever have been an advocate of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea regime then what happened to RDM is simply what you signed up for. That’s how the club is. If you’d rather we go back to how we were in the late 90s (not competing for the top trophies) then that’s fine, but direct your displeasure towards the owner, and not pointlessly at the interim manager.
You would certainly hope a 4 game winning streak now against Fulham, West Ham, Sunderland and Nordsjaellend, followed by success in Japan, will be enough to silence the booing home supporters (unless they’re hell bent on looking like idiots). Not only will their protests not make any difference but in actual fact are only going to end up hurting the team. No player can be happy with an earful of hateful chants about his boss, especially when he’s in the middle of following said boss’ instructions over how to win a game. Benitez is also a proud man. He’s thick skinned but surely if this doesn’t stop it will start having a negative effect. It’ll make him start over-thinking, second guessing himself and self-applying needless pressure to make the right decisions.
Fans who don’t want Benitez at the club, the situation really is win-win for you now. Either he succeeds and wins trophies, or he doesn’t and he’s gone. After Sunday we’ve it made quite clear how we feel. Perhaps from this point it might be a good idea to try supporting the team rather than sulking and abusing the man who wants the same things as we do, and is more than qualified to achieve them.