Benitez restores Chelsea swagger
Interim boss signals title intent after Blues bash Villa 8-0
Under Rafa Benitez in December, Chelsea have put six past Nordsjaelland, five through Leeds and now eight in Aston Villa's net.
The two 0-0 draws with which Roman Abramovich's latest appointee started his "interim" reign were the manure for a remarkable flowering of goals and entertainment.
Perspective is called for. Nordsjaelland were Champions League also-rans from Denmark. Leeds -- League Cup victims -- play in the Championship; and Aston Villa walked to the slaughter with a team whose average age was 23 years and 309 days.
Also this month Chelsea have lost at West Ham and to Corinthians in the Fifa Club World Cup final. But if they carry on playing like this, the two-horse Premier League title race will be joined by another thoroughbred.
What larks at Christmas time. There was joy all around, except for Villa, whose young lions were wiped out. In his 500th Premier League start, Frank Lampard overtook Bobby Tambling as the club's leading top-flight scorer, moving to 130 with a 25-yard drive before leaving the field to thunderous acclaim.
Within three minutes of the start there was a sixth in seven outings for Fernando Torres, a £50million striker who was turning into the Tin Man before Benitez arrived with his can of oil.
Torres was the first of seven scorers in a game that crushed Villa's mini-revival. Only Ramires, who replaced Lampard on the hour, scored twice, as David Luiz, Oscar, Branislav Ivanovic and Eden Hazard also beat Brad Guzan in the Villa goal.
The transformation in Torres is startling. Even his facial muscles have relaxed. His headed goal from a cross by Cesar Azpilicueta would have graced Didier Drogba's showreel. It was all elevation, precision and power: a Roy of the Rovers finish as he twisted his neck to head the ball with savage force.
From there Chelsea seemed to sense it would be a fun day. Their first home league goal since November 11 unleashed an avalanche. Benitez's appointment, which was resented and ridiculed by Chelsea's supporters, was meant to usher in an age of austerity, with caution to the fore.
Benitez would turn Roberto Di Matteo's team into a conservative unit. Instead the response from the players has been positive. The caretaker has avoided the mistake of stamping on their creativity. He has presented himself as someone who wants to help them attack more fluently while improving their defensive strength.
Again, though, they have to play this well against top opposition for the jury to be convinced. Norwich (on St Stephen's Day), Everton, Queens Park Rangers and Stoke must be dealt with before Arsenal's visit on January 20. If Chelsea could win all those four games the Manchester clubs would not feel so secure in their private battle for the title.
"The main thing is to win our games. You can do that if you can see the team improving," Benítez said. "I'm sure it will be closer.
"We'll try to be as close as possible, but you can see the mentality of the team: even after six goals they were still pushing forward for more."
Luiz looks at home in a central midfield screening role. Without Mikel and Oriol Romeu, Luiz linked up with Lampard to allow Juan Mata, Hazard and Victor Moses to spin their patterns.
Torres has scored 59 times in 84 Premier League appearances for Benitez.
The switch in his head has been flicked by the knowledge that Benitez will always play to his strengths as predator, pinned against defenders.
In his new role Torres is not dropping deep or roaming across the line. With his manager's support he is free to return to his oldest talents.
So liberated is he by this change of management that he tried a 'rabona' pass on the byline: a chip delivered by the back leg coming round in front of the standing one to lift the ball.
Almost all Chelsea's eight goals were attractive. Luiz's free-kick drew on Cristiano Ronaldo or Drogba. It clipped the ball up over a wall and then lowered it again beyond Guzan. Hazard's drive was a blaster. Ramires finished his two beautifully.
After earning a penalty when Ciaran Clark ran across him and clipped him in the box, Lucas Piazón saw his shot from the penalty spot saved by Guzan. Earlier Oscar had made no such error, with Chelsea's sixth, after a foul by Chris Herd.