Sunday 17 December 2017

Blue tide turns for Benitez

Green the epitome of gulf between Leeds and Chelsea elite

IT'S all very well to talk about how bitter the rivalry between Leeds United and Chelsea once was but for all the blood and thunder which preceded a quarter-final of a nondescript cup competition, the reality was powder puff.

Headline writers and autocue cuties tried to create a froth of intensity around the League Cup collision of enemies at Elland Road in the absence of any other live football to gossip about.

The addition of Ken 'Bongo' Bates to the mix certainly teed us up nicely and the north country weather chipped in to add an appropriate grimness to proceedings but there was virtually no blood and any thunder was meteorological.

Even a sorely wounded Rafa Benitez-led and chaotic enterprise like Chelsea had too much talent for Leeds.

The script was written in advance for Benitez.

Tired and frazzled by his new whirlwind life, the unrequited manager would watch his effete London-based multi-millionaires dissolve in a jet-lagged heap, while gritty lower league battlers followed the template used by Bradford against Arsenal last week and dished out a hammering.

As it happened, the game was highly entertaining, with more football from Leeds than many might have expected and some excellent stuff from Chelsea.

Benitez won big last night; on the scoreboard and in the boardroom. Maybe even in the dressing room too.

He's a vision of bloody-minded resolve when he stalks the touchline; every gesture a statement of intent and an affirmation of his own self-image.

While everyone else gaped slack-jawed when Roman Abramovich hired him, Benitez rubbed his hands and he's still rubbing, even if his palms must have been a bit raw in Japan when he lost the World Club Championship to Corinthians on Sunday - the first Champions League holders to let Europe down.

But if he's looking for signs that the tide has turned, there were plenty to see against Leeds.

His players had plenty of excuses. It was an awful night and Leeds were wound up to a high pitch by that most delightful of men Neil Warnock.

For a half hour, Chelsea danced rings around an outgunned home midfield and it seemed like a matter of time before the inevitable happened.

But a deftly executed sucker punch involving two passes handed Luciano Becchio a tap-in and Leeds an unlikely lead.

A team demoralised by events and exhausted from a 12-hour flight could easily have thrown in the towel at that point and hung Benitez out to dry.

But they didn't fold. They came roaring back in the second half with a clinically beautiful filleting of the Leeds defence by Juan Mata, the man Benitez will lean heavily on in the coming weeks and months.

Mata got the equaliser and ran the show.

Two more from Branislav Ivanovic and Victor Moses in quick succession, and Fernando Torres and Eden Hazard topped off the scoreline.

Chelsea did their business well at Elland Road.

Frank Lampard stepped forward for Benitez too and John Terry sat on the bench among the subs and staff, a sign that he is getting back into the rhythm of training and match days, although there is still uncertainty about a return day.

If it was orchestrated, it was a smart move by Benitez and an open display of unity for fans who have no interest in him remaining as manager, but might at least be persuaded to take a step back by the sight of public support for the manager from the likes of Lampard and Terry.

For those of us of a certain age who pinned our hopes and dreams on Giles, Bremner, Clarke and Lorimer many moons ago, this game was an opportunity to reminisce and see how far behind the toffs Leeds are.

Warnock admitted after the game that he had no complaints and that his team had been outclassed.

In other words, a long way behind. In two words: Paul and Green.

He walks and talks like a footballer. He can head the ball very well in open play and he runs around a lot.

But if ever there was a living metaphor for the gap in class, Green is it.

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