Ahead of his return to Stamford Bridge, Rafa Benitez reflects upon a challenging, but ultimately successful six-month spell in charge at Chelsea
Ahead of Chelsea v Newcastle, live on Sky Sports Premier League, Rafa Benitez discusses his memories of his short spell at Stamford Bridge, the challenges he faced, and the “belief” he has in his current team…
“Rafa Out!”, “We’re Just Not That Int-er-im” and “In Rafa We Will Never Trust” were just some of the banners with which Chelsea fans greeted Rafa Benitez when he was controversially appointed as interim manager at Stamford Bridge in November 2012.
Ahead of today’s return visit to Chelsea – his first since leaving the club – the Newcastle manager reflects upon a challenging, but ultimately successful six-month spell in charge and the challenge that lies ahead with his current club this season.
“I have very good memories, it was a good time for us,” he says of his time at Chelsea. “It was a challenge for me, an opportunity to go back to the Premier League with a top side and to try to achieve something, to win something.”
In a pursuit of success on four separate fronts both domestically and in Europe, Benitez had to manage a heavy fixture list. Chelsea would play nearly 70 games that season in all competitions.
Chelsea vs Newcastle
December 2, 2017, 11:30am
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“I remember before one game Demba Ba was a little bit tired and I didn’t want to play him,” he recalls. “I had to play Fernando Torres because he was fresh. But then I had to bring on Demba Ba for the last 10 minutes and he scored a great goal. The fans said ‘why didn’t you play Demba Ba before?’ So you have to manage the tiredness of your players. It was quite difficult because you still have to win every game.”
Some Chelsea fans had refused to accept the former Liverpool manager from the start. They saw him as an architect of the deep-rooted rivalry that had developed between the two clubs during the previous decade.
When Benitez was brought in to replace Roberto Di Matteo – a Stamford Bridge legend – supporters made their feelings known. Throughout his first game in charge, at home to Manchester City, he was subjected to a barrage of ill-feeling.
Newcastle boss Rafael Benitez is expecting the reception to be fine when he returns to Stamford Bridge
“The rivalry between two big clubs was obvious because we were in the same competitions and competing for the same things,” he says. “But I didn’t have any problem with the Chelsea fans before.
“Someone on Twitter said that I said I would never coach Chelsea. It was not true. I’m telling you now because some people think it was true. It was not true. I didn’t say that.”
Three months after his appointment, after an FA Cup tie at Middlesbrough, Benitez expressed his frustration about the continuing protests. “A group of fans are wasting time preparing banners,” he told the press. “I will leave at the end of the season so they don’t need to waste time with me. They have to concentrate on supporting the team.”
“After this interview the majority of the fans became more relaxed and supported the team,” he reflected this week. “Everybody, in the end, was happy because we won the Europa League and also we qualified for the Champions League.”
As Chelsea celebrated a successful end to the season the message expressed by many banners on show at Stamford Bridge was more appreciative of the interim manager. Benitez himself regards his time at Chelsea as something of a turning point in his career. He had been out of management for almost two years prior to his appointment.
“When you win trophies it’s sometimes because you have a good team,” he says. “But when you win trophies in different countries and not always with the best teams or the teams with more money it means that you have a group of professionals working with you and that you are getting more things right than wrong. It confirmed that we can do a job, we have the tools to do the job.”
He went on to enjoy success with Napoli – winning the Coppa Italia in 2014 – and briefly managed Real Madrid. Now he’s handling the rather different challenge of keeping Newcastle in the Premier League.
“We need around 20 points in the first part of the league, more or less, and 20 in the second part,” he says. “40 points, for me, means that you will stay up. And if you stay up then you can start building again.”
A £300m bid headed up by the financier Amanda Staveley to buy Newcastle is currently on the table. Benitez accepts that there are no guarantees that money to strengthen the squad will be forthcoming. But he’s convinced that the team already has the quality to hold their own at this level.
“The difference between the top six and the others – you can see in some games that it’s big, quite big,” he says. “But if we do things right and we keep working the same way we can compete against the other teams and when you compete you have more chances to win.”
Today Newcastle will face top-six opponents – his former club Chelsea. At the ground where he once made such an impact as a manager, Benitez believes his current side can make a mark of their own.
“We know that we have to do almost everything perfectly,” he says. “We know that it will be tough but still we have a belief that we can do it, that we can get a result. We will go and try to get three points in our way, try to win against one of the best teams and the champions.”
Watch Chelsea v Newcastle live on Sky Sports Premier League from 11.30am on Saturday.