Give a dog a bad name and all that. I’ve never found Rafa Benitez the most sympathetic of managers nor even one of the best – he blows his own trumpet loud and hard enough anyway, hardly to need anyone else’s eulogising – yet the way he was blanked by Chelsea fans after their 1-0 win over Manchester United seemed churlish.
True, there is a history there of mutual animosity from the days when Benitez was managing Liverpool – and they gained that famous (to Chelsea fans, infamous) Euro victory against them at Anfield with a refereeing decision which I thought perfectly correct at the time. Had a goal for Liverpool not been given, there should surely have been a penalty.
There was indeed something insensitive about the way that Benitez, such a target for the Chelsea fans – was brought in when the much-loved Roberto Di Matteo was sacked. But, hot on the heels of him being named manager of the month the victory at Old Trafford surely entitled him to recognition rather than ostracism.
It was interesting to see Dietmar Hamann coming out in praise of Benitez after the Old Trafford success. Hamann it was who arguably won Liverpool that European Cup final in Istanbul against Milan. Rampant in the first half and 3-0 up, eventually beaten on penalties after extra time. Hamann having been belatedly brought on after supposedly chaotic scenes in Liverpool’s dressing room, to mark a Kaka who had previously been allowed to run wild and free.
Let facts be faced. Overall this has been a mediocre, disappointing season for English football. If the ultimate criterion is the European Champions Cup, then all the competing English teams have failed.
If Manchester United have won the Premiership at a canter, they have failed miserably in the European Cup. The same for the second season in a row has emphatically applied to Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City, incapable this time of getting the better of modest Ajax and unable to find consolation in the Europa League competition.
Last season, City in a final match of spurious drama – squeaking home against a depleted Queens Park Rangers team and even then beating their eternal rivals Manchester United only by a whisker – have notably failed to buy success in the Premiership or Europe. This despite their galaxy of hugely expensive stars. Roberto Mancini may have got them to the FA Cup final, but he still looks an abrasive manager.
If Arsenal had not lost Robin Van Persie to Manchester United – and how could they keep him when he seemed so determined to join a team with better chances of success, when to do so could have cost them so much – it is arguable that they would have made a Premiership challenge. But at least, like Chelsea in the European final last season in Munich, they rose from the ashes of embarrassing defeat by Bayern Munich on their own ground; 2-0 at that, rather than on penalties, where Chelsea had so surprisingly won the previous final. An indication that whatever the triumphs of Bayern and Dortmund in the European semi-finals, Bayern at least are not invincible; and the Gunners beat them even without their essential playmaker, Jack Wilshere, though Bayern themselves were without the influential Bastian Schweinsteiger.
If the Premiership – bar such feats as those of Gareth Bale – was so disappointing, it is hard to see what will be coming up next season to improve matters. Cardiff? Hull? Both would have to spend heavily to survive.