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Feb 23, 2013

'Normality' evades Benitez at Chelsea

Rafa Benitez claims it's the kind of thing that happens all the time, that it was "a normal meeting".

The obvious response, of course, is that it is the kind of thing that happens much more often at Chelsea than anywhere else, and that it reflects a club where "normality" has been changing the manager at a rate of more than one a season.

Naturally, it is somewhere between these two perceptions that the truth lies about the latest unrest between a Stamford Bridge manager and his players - and what it means for the rest of the campaign.

All at the club confirm that there was an open exchange of views at training on Monday morning after the Manchester City defeat.

Those close to Benitez, meanwhile, say that he was merely doing what he always does - bringing the players together to discuss the latest developments and then inviting opinion in order to better assess prospects.

Indeed, it is understood that the discussion was initially quite straight and with no deeper agenda. Even when John Terry questioned the intensity of the training sessions, Benitez merely responded that Chelsea's hectic schedule of a game every three-four days makes it impossible to find a balance between the highly demanding exercises of Andre Villas-Boas and the more relaxed approach of Roberto Di Matteo.

The tone is understood to have taken something of a turn, however, when one senior player made his now infamous comment that they "won the European Cup with this team".

And really, despite Benitez's possibly fair protestations that it was a "normal meeting" and that he can "guarantee the players are fully behind our ideas", this is the ultimate long-term problem with a particular core group at Stamford Bridge. Any time circumstances get agitated, they have that propensity to turn.

For his part, the Spaniard denied accusing the squad of getting previous managers the sack.

"Nothing else. It was just a team talk after a defeat. That's it. We had a meeting on the pitch with my players and my technical staff. It's part of our business.

"I don't have any problem. We are training really well. I've said before: the atmosphere is really good inside. They're a good group of players, working hard and keen to learn. They were disappointed like me with the defeat, but that's it.

"I think it's a normal meeting between players and technical staff, as after every game. You can see it all around the world, after every game, you exchange opinions."

The Chelsea supporters have infamously made their opinion well known on Benitez, and it is exceptionally unlikely that he will ever improve his relationship with them or even get enough time to try.

To a degree, though, that has ensured the most important relationship for any Chelsea manager under Roman Abramovich - that with his players - has been largely overshadowed.

It wasn't until two weeks ago, and a story about Terry and Benitez that The Sun had to eventually apologise for, that it started to come under scrutiny for the first time.

Of course, that was also because - for all of Chelsea's issues since November - the players didn't have too many problems with him.

Indeed, despite the fans' understandably deep appreciation for Di Matteo, it wasn't a feeling completely shared among the squad. Many, in fact - rather ironically given the events of Monday - enjoyed the change of pace the Italian's replacement brought to training sessions.

Similarly, as with all clubs and even the most successful ones, the players are not a homogenous group. Like so many others, they are split into different factions with different general outlooks. The history and politics at Stamford Bridge, though, ensure that is much more pronounced at Chelsea.

As goes without saying, Benitez is far from blameless in the recent inconsistency. Some of his attempts at rotation - or "squad management" as he prefers to call it - have been counter-productive and failed to strike the right balance between necessary psychological boosts in the short term and essential energy in the long term.

Similarly, it doesn't always seem like the team put out is best suited to the qualities of the players available. If it's a long way from the perceived dogmatism Benitez illustrated at Liverpool, Inter and Valencia, some decisions have still been surprising - not least how he handles the midfield chemistry between the defensive players like David Luiz and Ramires, and then Frank Lampard and the more advanced new stars such as Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar.

From that point of view, it also cannot be denied that Chelsea have an oddly structured squad, overloaded in some areas, under-resourced in others.

When it comes to explaining those decisions, though, Benitez could be better. Even those close to him talk about how his man-management can be wanting. That can often be seen at his press conferences, which are generally amicable affairs.

Benitez will often feel that a point or conclusion is obvious, but not necessarily explain or reveal the thinking or evidence that led to it.

A perfect example is one of the long monologues he will embark on to explain how his side "controlled" a game they lost and had superior stats in everything except the scoreline. Again, you can see the thinking, but his exact distillation of it doesn't necessarily improve his image.

He was at it again on Tuesday at Cobham.

"I think we have had a lot of games we could win, and that was my point before: we still are very, very close to winning games. If you go to the Etihad and know you'll have a penalty and could score on two counter-attacks, you have to be disappointed. We didn't play at the level we could play, and that is my concern. But, in terms of the other results, two or three we could easily have won. That is the big difference."

If certain decisions are explained in a similar way in training, it is understandable why some players might additionally bristle.

The entire dynamic, though, does raise the question of who is most culpable for Chelsea's stark fall in the league since October and what it means for the remainder of their season.

Essentially, it is a manager's ultimate responsibility to derive a winning response from his players, but that will always be tempered if they are not his players and, as in this case, they have such a history of occasional hysterics.

As it is, rather appropriately, it's almost as if there's a tense, taut, but just about workable dynamic between manager, squad and player at the moment.

Although it is probably true that a few consecutive errors can send them into a tailspin in any given game - as happened against Manchester City - it also appears accurate to say, as Benitez does, that they do retain that capacity to suddenly click and thrash a side as against Aston Villa or Wigan.

And, while that means they do not have the cohesion, overall quality or, crucially, intensity to even challenge for the league, they should remain competent and consistent enough to secure a top-four finish and possibly a cup win.

For all the problems and grief he has invited since taking the job, that prospect is understood to be Benitez's main motivation at Chelsea. He believes it will get him back on the managerial circuit for the close summer.

"This team finished sixth last year," he said on Tuesday ahead of the FA Cup trip to Middlesbrough. "We have to fight now for the top three. I am here to be in the top three, and do my best in every competition. That is it."

That, of course, is what used to be more regular at Chelsea than even the ructions.

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