Benitez receives a zero's welcome at Blues
Dreary draw against City fails to calm storm of fury at the Bridge
THEY came to boo Rafa Benitez, not to praise him, and when finally Stamford Bridge did roar their disapproval at the club's new manager they may even have surprised themselves with the fervour of it.
It was a quite remarkable response to the arrival of a new man at this or any club, one that had been brewing all afternoon and was delivered just seconds before kick-off when Benitez finally arrived by the side of the pitch. There had been banners and grumblings and talk of a protest but the moment that all the frustration came out was a spontaneous howl of anger.
Up until that moment, Chelsea's on-pitch announcer, Neil Barnett, who normally bounds around like a puppy on a new carpet and cannot wait to introduce the supporter to any new signing, had been muted by his standards. He was waiting for the right moment to introduce Benitez to his new public but, as a lifelong Chelsea supporter, he knew there was no right moment.
To put it bluntly, the booing was more hostile than any planned protest. The spontaneity was what made it such a jolt to the system. What effect it had on the man himself and the team was difficult to gauge but it threw the home crowd into a fit of introspection. Up in his executive box, Roman Abramovich held that usual inscrutable expression of his. Did he care? Had he noticed? Would he care even if he had noticed?
There were occasional bursts from around the ground of the song "F**k off Benitez, you're not welcome here" - as well as a tribute to Roberto Di Matteo on 16 minutes. While the anti-Benitez chants were pretty vicious nothing quite managed the sting of that original response. Fortunately for Benitez, if that is the right word in the context, the booing was stilled by Barnett's announcement that Dave Sexton, the former Chelsea manager, had died at the age of 82. A highly respected coach, and a significant figure within the English game, you might say the timing of Sexton's demise did his successor at Chelsea, 38 years down the line, a favour.
It prompted a change of mood to a respectful round of applause from both sets of supporters and, for a time at least, saw off the hostility that was directed at Benitez. It was one of those strangely dark moments that occasionally occurs at football matches: the dead football manager proving infinitely more popular than the living, breathing incumbent.
At some point in this family squabble, a football match was going to have to be staged and when it did, the slightly stupefying atmosphere of civil war in the stadium made it a hesitant, joyless affair that got little better. That Chelsea came back into the game having looked vulnerable at first was a relief to Benitez but the bigger picture is that this was only their third point from the last five league games. He cannot change the past at the club, just the future. He was defiant in his post-match press conference, at first claiming that he could not understand the words of chants at football matches and only when it was pointed out to him that it was not words but booing, that he acknowledged he was aware of the mood in the stadium.
When it came to the homemade 'Rafa Out' banners dotted around Stamford Bridge, which were of a varying standard of design, the new Chelsea interim coach asked the question: "How many people do you need to write a banner? Maybe one, and two to hold it up." It was a reassuring sign that he has at least not lost his sense of humour.
What does a Benitez Chelsea team look like? He gave Cesar Azpilicueta only the fourth league start of his Chelsea career at right-back, a round peg in a round hole, and pushed Branislav Ivanovic to centre-back. That meant Gary Cahill, suffering from fever, had to settle for the bench. In his absence, Chelsea kept their first clean sheet in the league since the win over Stoke City on 22 September.
The problem was at the other end, where Fernando Torres put in more of a shift than he did at West Bromwich Albion last weekend but still looked lacking in confidence and clunky with his touch. He struck a shot over the bar just after the hour and that was as close as he got. It was the first time Chelsea had failed to score in a home game this season. They had one shot on target.
As for the champions of England, this was a game that was there for the taking in the first half and they missed their opportunity. Roberto Mancini declared himself dissatisfied with the point and bemoaned his team's inability to create chances in the last 20 minutes of the match. The big guns, like Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero did not rise to the occasion, although the defence was reassuringly solid.
The best chance for City, arguably of the whole game, fell to Aguero three minutes before the break when Edin Dzeko headed the ball onto him and the Argentinian did not generate enough power in front of goal to beat Petr Cech. It came at the end of a half in which the City side had created enough chances to take the lead.
The second half was more even and included another moment of the absurd when David Luiz appeared to body-check the substitute Mario Balotelli, although it was the latter who found himself being booked by referee Chris Foy for simulation. Luiz and Balotelli are the comedy turns for their respective sides, both commanding affection if not the trust of their clubs' supporters, and their collision was a rare bright spot on a dull afternoon.
As the game drew to a close, the stadium announcer read out the attendance and thanked the crowd "for their support". It is a sign of how closely football adheres to its rituals that no-one thought to leave that bit out given the to-do before the game. Benitez himself shot off down the tunnel at full-time, no doubt glad to get it over with. If this is the home crowd being supportive he would hate to see them on a bad day.