Rafa the gaffer

It might not have been the job he wanted – a return to Liverpool, surely would have been his preferred choice – but after two years in the footballing wilderness, Rafa Benitez is back in the big time.

Chelsea appointed the former Valencia, Liverpool and Inter coach within hours of firing his predecessor Roberto Di Matteo. Where Di Matteo was popular among Chelsea fans, it’s fair to say that Benitez, courtesy of his Liverpool links, is not.

And who can blame them. Only five years ago, Benitez had this to say: ”Chelsea is a big club with fantastic players, every manager wants to coach a such a big team.

“But I would never take that job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool, no matter what. For me there is only club in England, and that’s Liverpool.”

Benitez’s decision to become Chelsea manager, albeit an interim one, has also upset many Liverpool fans who, as is their want, erroneously believed that as a former paid employee of the club, the Spaniard shared their contempt for the vulgarians of Stamford Bridge. Benitez prayed on that loyalty, aware that one day, sooner or later, but probably sooner, the Anfield crowd would once again call for him to end their misery. That day, now appears to have gone.

It has been suggested that Benitez has been appointed with the intention of getting the best out of Fernando Torres, who he helped make one of the most deadly strikers in the world at Liverpool.

Benitez told Sport360 shortly before his appointment: “I think you can see in (Torres’) face that he is almost trying too hard.

“But I think the potential is still there.

“The problem with some players is that they are doing so well in a team and the understanding is so good that it is difficult to replicate that in another team.

“Sometimes, it is a question of time, but he is a good player, is keen to learn and is a good professional.”

Going Dutch

Benitez’s first act as new Chelsea manager, other than wiping the smile off Fernando Torres’ beaming face, has been to appoint Boudewijn Zenden as his assistant manager.

Pierre Zenden, father and agent of Boudewijn, told Voetbal International his son was on his way to Chelsea.

“He was approached on Wednesday by Benitez and is now on a flight,” he said.

“Since yesterday, he phoned Benitez many times.

“I assume that he will be on the pitch this afternoon, together with the manager.

“I assume he will finish the season, just like Benitez.”

This being Chelsea, it’s probably wise not to assume anything. Take each day as it comes.

Gone, but not forgotten

But what of Di Matteo, the first and only man to bring the Champions League trophy to Chelsea. On his departure, the Italian released a statement which epitomised  the quiet dignity he has shown throughout his brief tenure.

“It was an honour for me to be appointed manager of a club that I loved playing for and one that is so close to my heart,” he said in a statement issued by the League Managers Association.

“I am extremely proud of the successes and trophies that we were able to bring to the club in recent months.

“Lifting Chelsea’s first Champions League trophy, in Munich, was the best achievement in club history and without doubt the highlight of my career to date, both as a player and manager. It is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life.

“I have a deep and unreserved passion for Chelsea Football Club and I would like to sincerely thank all of the staff, my players and of course the Chelsea fans, for their tremendous and unconditioned support in the intense time I have been the manager at the Bridge. I wish all of them every success for the rest of the season and beyond.”

Tottenham coach Andre Villas-Boas, whose reign at Stamford Bridge lasted six days shorter than Di Matteo, was unsurprised to hear of his successor’s dismissal.

“It’s their decision, it’s what they think will take them forward,” Villas-Boas, who replaced Harry Redknapp at Tottenham in the summer, told the BBC.

“At Chelsea, I think another sacking is just like any other day at the office. That’s my interpretation.”

Special circumstances

FIFA have refused Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba permission to leave China’s Shanghai Shenhua on loan before the January transfer window.

“Any professional player who is registered with a club that is affiliated to one association shall not be eligible to play for a club affiliated to a different association,” FIFA, said in a statement.

Drogba, who left Chelsea in June, was looking to retain match fitness ahead of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, which takes place in South Africa between 19 January and 10 February.

According to reports, Chelsea had applied to FIFA for a special dispensation to sign Didier Drogba on loan outside the transfer window.

Why, one wonders? Because Fernando Torres isn’t playing very well at the moment? Because two-time French Player of the Year, Eden Hazard, looks unlikely to match the 20 league goals he scored last season? Because England international Daniel Sturridge is feeling a little neglected at the moment? Because you had a bottomless pit of spending money but only two months in which to spend it? The mind boggles.

Best of friends

The Football Association and Sepp Blatter have kissed and made up and appear to have put past differences behind them, or so it would seem from yesterday’s display of staged intimacy.

“Now we are living in a wonderful day – it’s the present,” the FIFA president said, as he and FA chairman David Bernstein shared an embrace.

The reason for this new-found spirit of cordiality? Money.

The FA, the ­richest national association in world football, was the recipient of a donation of £314,000 for the St George’s medical centre, from a FIFA fund normally designed to help developing nations?

One does wonder, how an  association which has just opened a national football centre at a cost of £105 million, can be considered to be in need of a helping hand, but we’ll leave that for another day.

For now, let’s celebrate the rekindling of a relationship that has brought so much mirth to the football world in recent years.

“What we witness today is not only a co-operation at the footballing level,” said Blatter laying it on a with trowel. “It is on friendship, on recognition of the job that has been done here by the FA at St George’s Park. Don’t go back to the past.”

Returning to Blatter’s previous assertion that the English were “arrogant” and “bad losers”, FA chairman David Bernstein said: “We’re not arrogant in any sense at all. He understands we want to be in the tent and part of the international community. We want to give as much as we can.”

Well, you got so much out it in the past, then why not give it another go.

Quote of the day

“I think it is good. I think a club must support his manager the maximum they can until the last day. When they decide to make a change, a new life, we cannot complain and we have to carry on. But until the last day I admire the clubs that support their managers. City is out of the Champions League but they are out because of two big teams. Real Madrid and Dortmund are two very good teams and in this group we knew from the beginning that a big team would be out. And it is good that it is City as I think Roberto can work without any kind of problem I believe. Because if it was Real Madrid I do not think the press would let me return to Madrid.”

Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho suggests that unlike Manchester City boss, Roberto Mancini, he would have been sacked had he failed to navigate the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Goal of the day

One of those ‘foot like a traction engine’ moments that Lukas Podolski seems to specialise in.

Save/Miss of the day

Hard to say whether this was a wonderful save or a poor miss – probably a bit of both.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Outrageous overhead kicks from outside the penalty area are like London buses: you wait ages for one and then two come along within the space of a week. Here’s Philippe Mexes’ homage to Zlatan.

When in Rome…

Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas is hopeful that Lazio fans will not resort to racist chanting when the two sides meet in Rome on Thursday in the Europa League.

Given the events of last night, when several Tottenham fans were stabbed by a gang of armed Lazio fans – reportedly shouting “Jews” – then it would be advisable to set the bar exceedingly low when predicting the behaviour of this particular group of supporters.

When the two clubs faced each other at White Hart Lane in October, Jermain Defoe, Andros Townsend and Aaron Lennon were verbally abused by the travelling Lazio fans, resulting in a £32,500 fine from UEFA.

However, Villas-Boas is not convinced that such fines will do anything to deter the racist idiots from spouting their bile.

“UEFA decided to punish Lazio and rightly so,” he said. “[But] It doesn’t mean that incidents won’t happen again.

“I think the players are in the right frame of mind to leave the authorities to deal with those situations in case it happens. That’s something that hopefully will not happen tomorrow.”

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