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.

PHOTOS: Chelsea submit stunning 60,000 stadium plans

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26:  An aerial view of Stamford Bridge home of Chelsea Football Club on July 26, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)
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Chelsea announced on Tuesday that they have submitted plans to upgrade their existing Stadium Bridge to hold over 60,000.

[ MORE: City valued at $3 billion

The Blues will have to play away from their home for up to three seasons while the current stadium is upgraded, with most of the existing structure being demolished and revamped as Russian owner Roman Abramovich will finance the new stadium which could cost over $750 million.

[ MORE: Costa’s time up at Chelsea? ]

Via the club website, Chelsea issued the following message to fans and their neighbors in West London, as anybody who has ever visited the Bridge will tell you that it’s squeezed into a tight 12-acre site banked by housing, two train lines, a cemetery and more.

A planning application for a new stadium at Stamford Bridge with an expanded seating capacity has been submitted. This follows a successful consultation process during which we received very helpful feedback. This application will now be examined by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

The main details of the application are:

– Stadium seating capacity to expand from 41,600 to 60,000 spectators

– An outstanding view of the stadium from every seat

– An arena designed to create an exciting atmosphere

– Direct access to and from Fulham Broadway Station, making travel more efficient

– Stadium facilities improved for every area

The planning process will last beyond the end of the season; if the application is granted planning permission there will still be a lot of work to do before redevelopment can start, including obtaining various other consents. We will inform you of progress through this process.

This will not be an easy project to get over the line but looking at the stunning photos below, if Chelsea can get this through the planning stage and put a shovel in the ground sometime soon, then their ability to attract almost 20,000 extra fans to home games will see them able to compete and surpass Europe’s big boys financially.

After searching for numerous other sites in London to build a new stadium, Chelsea have instead opted for the costlier option of staying at Stamford Bridge. The redevelopment would involved a complex excavation which would see the pitch lowered into the ground in order to squeeze in all 60,000 fans. If they get the green light the stadium would have the same capacity as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, while expansions to Anfield, the Etihad Stadium and White Hart Lane will also see those stadiums hover around the 60,000 mark.

With a capacity of 75, 731 Old Trafford remains the biggest stadium in the Premier League but the others are catching up as UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules continue to kick in and generating more revenue from ticket sales is key for clubs like Chelsea who aim to perennially challenge for the top titles domestically and in Europe.

If Chelsea are able to build a new stadium at Stamford Bridge they will have to find a temporary solution in London with both Wembley Stadium and Twickenham mentioned as options. However, with Tottenham also looking for a temporary home while White Hart Lane is redeveloped, there could be quite a battle between those two for a solution.

Anyway, take a peak at these photos below to see how a new Stamford Bridge would look.

Source: Herzog & de Meuron
Source: Herzog & de Meuron
Source: LBHF
stamford bridge ground_tcm21-199539
Source: Herzog & de Meuron

Chinese group buy 13 percent stake in Man City for $400 million

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It turns out Manchester City is valued at $3 billion.

[ MORE: Costa’s time at Chelsea up? ]

On Tuesday it was announced that after six months of talks a 13 percent stake in the City Football Group (CFG), owned by Abu Dhabi based Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was sold to investors from China for $400 million.

CFG comprises of the jewel in its crown, Man City, plus New York City FC in Major League Soccer, Melbourne City FC in Australia’s A-league and a stake in the Yokohama Marinos in Japan.

This huge investment from a Chinese consortium — made up of China Media Capital Holdings and CITIC Capital — comes less than a month after China’s President  Xi Jinping visited City’s training ground during a tour of Britain.

Why are Chinese investors pumping millions of dollars into the already wealthy club?

The chairman of China Media Capital — a state-backed media firm — Ruigang Li believes that the consortium’s investment can help the growth of soccer in China.

“We and our consortium partner CITIC Capital also see this investment as a prime opportunity for furthering the contribution of China to the global football family,” Li said.

As for City, they aim to make the most of this link up with China with chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak hopeful of the extra growth opportunities this deal will provide.

“Our belief is that we now have an unrivaled platform to grow CFG, our clubs and companies both in China and internationally,” Al Mubarak said. “We will be working hard with our new partners to realize the potential that this deal creates.”

[ MORE:  Who is favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Perhaps more important than this investment from China is the fact that the company which owns Man City is now valued at $3 billion on the New York Stock Exchange. Their close neighbors Manchester United are currently valued at $3.05 billion on the NYSE. United seeing their so called “noisy neighbors” not only succeed on the pitch but now challenge their financial dominance off the pitch, the Red Devils will be wary of City’s rise to the upper echelons of English and European soccer, and now way beyond that with their ventures overseas and particularly in China after this huge influx of cash.

If, as seems to be the case, it’s a matter of if and not when the sport of soccer explodes into mainstream society in China, City being owned by companies with close links to the Chinese state will certainly help them generate more fans, revenue and business from the country with the largest population on planet earth. Tapping into that potential — other teams like Real Madrid, Liverpool and United have a strong and loyal fanbase in East Asia — seems like a savvy move for a club who have invested billions of dollars in building themselves into a world superpower.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

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Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers