All aboard the Rafamobile! Benítez suddenly coach of Chelsea (for now)


Hours after they parted ways with the man who won them their first European title, Chelsea’s moved on to a man whose reputation hinges on his UEFA Champions League success.

With the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez today, Chelsea’s replaced Roberto Di Matteo, if only in the short-term. Given the job of seeing out the 2012-13 season, Benítez appears to be doing little more than keeping a seat warm for Roman Abramovich’s true ambition – Pep Guardiola.

Here’s the club’s statement:

Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season.

The owner and the Board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives.

The 52-year-old Spaniard is due to meet the players at the training ground in Cobham tomorrow

Those objectives are unlikely to include UEFA Champions League, where Chelsea’s fate now depends on Juventus losing in Donetsk on matchday six. Of course, that could happen, and if it does (while Chelsea beats Nordsjaelland), the Blues will have a man whose reputation has come to rest on his Champions League accumen. If not, there’s always the league, two domestic cups, and Europa League.

It’s a good appointment for everybody except Di Matteo, who likely would be in a job today had Benítez been either unavailable or unwilling to subjugate himself to a temporary position.

Such has been Benítez’s fall. After guiding Liverpool to second in the Premier League in 2008-09, he allowed Liverpool to slip to seventh place, the failure to make Champions League beginning a slide from which the club’s still recovering. Benítez’s subsequent inability to replace José Mourinho at Inter Milan meant the former Valencia boss’s best route to a marquee job was a situation like Chelsea’s.

Let’s also not forget the nature Benítez’s failings in Milan, because they’re particularly relevant to his potential success at Chelsea. We should take managerial hubris and put it aside, because Benítez has likely been dissuaded of notions that had him shrug off his part in Liverpool’s downfall. The state he left Internazionale in was bad enough.

There he inherited an old team coming off a Mourinho-led European title and not only changed how they played but ran his veterans into the ground. There’s more than one similarity to be drawn between that Inter side and Benítez’s new charge. By the time the Nerazzurri took off for 2011’s Club World Cup, they were depleted, mutinous, and out of chances for their ill-fitting coach.

While Benítez is not directly replacing Mourinho in London, he will again be faced with expectations raised by the Special One. Even after Di Matteo delivered the one prize José couldn’t claim, standards at Stamford Bridge reflect the demands of a man five years gone. If Benítez is going to retain his job, he has to claim the league, FA Cup, or Europa League. And as Di Matteo’s travails show, even that might not be enough.

Because if Benítez is to win silverware during his Stamford Bridge residency, it will likely be through the same pragmatism that characterized his most successful times at Anfield. It’s not ugly, it’s not anti-football, but it’s also not Barcelona. And for whatever misguided reasons Roman Abramovich is using to fuel his decisions, Chelsea’s owner won’t be happy until his team is playing the brand of soccer he’s wanted since the day he bought the club.

The lack of style undid Mourinho. It undid Di Matteo. And it will likely undo Benítez, regardless of results.

The one thing that could keep Benítez in London past May 2013 is if Guardiola goes elsewhere, because for everything we’ve heard about Abramovich’s lust of Pep, we’ve heard little of reciprocation from the former Barça boss. We know he prefers England. We know he prefers London. We also know that he’s unlikely to make any decisions until early-2013, if not later.

All of which makes the treatment of Di Matteo more curious. Replacing a club icon with a former rival is precarious enough (though Chelsea fans will likely recognize Benítez’s qualities). To do so when it’s unclear if lack of a striker or thin central midfield are the real problems hints Di Matteo was never going to be embraced by Abramovich. It didn’t matter that Di Matteo’s Champions League troubles came in a group with two of the top eight teams in Europe. That he lost provided Arbamovich an out from a man he never truly wanted, even if it made more sense to keep him until the Guardiola question was resolved.

With no answers in sight, Chelsea fans are best served concentrating on the present. They aren’t the best team in England, but they’re capable of competing for the title. Perhaps Benítez will bring something new out of them. Cup competitions have taken on a special meaning for the Blues. They’re still alive in both. And even if Europe only offers Europa League, the team has enough young, exciting talents to make that congestion-inducing tournament worth a Chelsea-supporters’ time. There’s still plenty of light in this 2012-13 tunnel.

Roberto Di Matteo won’t be driving them through it, but it’s time to move on. All aboard the Rafamobile.

Arsenal 0-0 Middlesbrough: Gunners slip up at home

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  • Gunners unbeaten since opening day
  • Ramirez hits bar for Boro
  • Boro without a win in 7

Arsenal were held to a 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium against Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Arsene Wenger‘s side had won six Premier League games on the bounce going into this game but Aitor Karanka‘s Boro went close on several occasions as Arsenal had an off day.

With the point Arsenal still go top of the Premier League table on 20 points, while Boro has eight points after a resolute defensive display as they always looked dangerous on the break.

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Early on Mesut Ozil went down in the box after a cutback but referee Mike Dean waved away the penalty appeals.

Middlesbrough then had a glorious chance as on the break Adama Traore saw his shot blocked by Petr Cech and then Alvaro Negredo’s follow up was saved.

From that attack Boro then won a free kick ans Gaston Ramirez struck the angle of the post and bar. Agonizingly close.

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Alexis Sanchez then went close from a similar free kick as Victor Valdes pushed it out of the top corner. Traore then whipped a cross in which Negredo flicked on to Ramirez who sent his header straight at Cech.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]  

Arsenal almost went ahead as Valdes made came out and made a hash of it but Laurent Koscielny completely missed the ball.

Alexis then went close as his free kick was tipped around the post by Valdes and Arsenal continued to pour forward. Boro looked dangerous on the break as Mustafi was caught out by Ramirez as the Teeside club hung in there until the end.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Valdes stopped Sanchez late on as Arsenal poured forward but at the other end Negredo and Traore combined on the break but the former couldn’t make the most of the opportunity as Koscielny made a superb tackle.

Then, Arsenal thought they’d won the game in stoppage time but Ozil was offside as he finished. The game ended 0-0 with Arsenal missing out on the chance to go three points clear at the top of the table.

West Ham 1-0 Sunderland: Reid scores at the death

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22: Dimitri Payet of West Ham United and Lamine Kone of Sunderland compete for the ball during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Sunderland at Olympic Stadium on October 22, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
(Stephen Pond / Getty Images)
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  • New Zealand defender scores late
  • Sunderland continues struggles
  • USMNT’s Gooch subs on late

West Ham United dominated visiting Sunderland but looked destined for a frustrating draw with the lowly Black Cats at Olympic Stadium on Saturday.

That’s when Winston Reid stepped in, belting a shot through traffic in what could only be described as the final ticks of stoppage time to give the Hammers a 1-0 win.

Sunderland remains dead last with two points, while the Hammers are 15th with 10 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Referee Bobby Madley denied a pair of penalty appeals in the early moments, and one — a blocking foul just outside the six — was almost certainly valid enough to give the Hammers a chance from the spot.

West Ham was simply better for the entire first half, but their finishing continued to elude the Olympic Stadium set. Simone Zaza was emblematic of their problems, very strong but without goal (just missing an acrobatic bicycle kick just before half).

How dominant were they? See below:

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[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sunderland had the first chance of the second half, with Adrian called on to parry a hard shot from outside the 18.

Otherwise the half was almost exclusively West Ham, and Reid ripped a Dimitri Payet — who else? — pass through traffic for the win.

American midfielder Lynden Gooch came on for the final quarter hour.

Hull City 0-2 Stoke City: Shaqiri’s magical brace is enough

HULL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City and Curtis Davies of Hull City compete for the ball during the Premier League match between Hull City and Stoke City at the KCom Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
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  • Shaqiri scored first half blast
  • Adds free kick in second half
  • Potters 100th PL win
  • Tigers have lost five-straight

Xherdan Shaqiri scored a pair of wonderful goals to pull Stoke City out of the drop zone and send Hull City to 18th in a 2-0 win at the KC Stadium on Saturday.

Stoke moves 14th with 9 points, two ahead of the relegation zone. Hull have seven points.

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The Potters got on the board when Hull’s defense allowed plenty of room to work the ball.

Shaqiri blasted the ball inside the near post from yards beyond the 18 for a goal you’ll see on all the highlight reels.

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[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Make that four, Opta, as Shaqiri scored a very nice free kick after halftime to make it 2-0 and ensure a trip away from the drop zone.

There just wasn’t much to like for Mike Phelan’s Tigers, who were outshot and outplayed at home.

Leicester City 3-1 Crystal Palace: Foxes look the part in win

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Ahmed Musa of Leicester City (R) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with his team mate Danny Simpson of Leicester City (L) during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at The King Power Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
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  • Musa, Okazaki break slumps
  • Fuchs scores gorgeous goal
  • Foxes first win in four
  • Palace winless in three

Leicester City’s Champions League form is carrying into the Premier League, as Claudio Ranieri‘s Foxes controlled proceedings in a X-X win over Crystal Palace on Saturday at King Power Stadium.

Ahmed Musa scored his first Leicester City goal, while Shinji Okazaki added his first tally in 14 PL matches to help salt it away. Unlikely goal scorer Christian Fuchs celebrated his new contract with a terrific left-footed shot in the 80th minute.

Yohan Cabaye scored for Palace.

Leicester joins 11th place Palace on 11 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first half was certainly in Leicester City’s wheelhouse, albeit without traditional finish.

Islam Slimani in particular seemed a touch off, but the Foxes’ man played a big role in the opener.

Slimani’s lay-off found Musa, who ripped the ball through traffic and to the left of Steve Mandanda to make it 1-0.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Leicester seemed best prepared to score the next goal, and Danny Drinkwater had a shot deflected wide around the hour mark.

The goal came through Okazaki, who darted onto a blocked cross and blasted a shot by Mandanda inside the near post from 15 yards.

Cabaye was a lively player for Palace, and Kasper Schmeichel denied his point blank chance in the 74th minute. The ensuing corner saw Danny Simpson clear Christian Benteke‘s header off the line.

Fuchs then tore into a left-footed volley from just outside the 18 for a goal of the weekend contender.

Schmeichel blocked a partial Benteke breakaway in the 83rd minute, and Cabaye redirected Wilfried Zaha‘s cross to dirty Leicester’s clean sheet. That was the only goal of a furious fightback from Palace.