Managerial uncertainty continues at Chelsea
Chelsea v Arsenal, 1.30pm
20 January ~ As Chelsea comfortably led Southampton on Wednesday evening, the jeers aimed at interim manager Rafael Benítez seemed to subside, at least momentarily. In front of the lowest attendance at Stamford Bridge since 2007, the European champions were heading for their first home victory this year. It took until Jason Puncheon's equaliser for the discontent to re-emerge. The struggling Saints had come from 2-0 down to snatch a point, leading Benítez to be serenaded with the increasingly familiar chants of "We don't care about Rafa" and "You're not welcome here".
As Benítez himself surely knows, anything other than a win against Arsenal today will be received in the same manner. Arsène Wenger's side are also experiencing an uncomfortable transition, of course, with another trophyless season seemingly likely. But the pressure for instant success at Chelsea makes their travails seem more severe. The misery in midweek was compounded by former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, a long-term target of the Chelsea board, opting to join Bayern Munich just hours earlier.
Despite the boos which greeted Benítez upon the final whistle, bookmakers shortened their odds on him taking over the Blues on a permanent basis. Depending on whether José Mourinho chooses to return to Stamford Bridge next season – and, given the antagonistic nature of their parting, owner Roman Abramovich may not even choose to approach the Real Madrid manager – that could become a more distinct possibility.
Then there is the matter of Frank Lampard. Replaced by Fernando Torres on Wednesday, much to the home crowd's audible displeasure, the 34-year-old midfielder is yet to be offered a contract extension. In some ways, the club hierarchy's reluctance to see him stay is understandable. Signing for another season would mean Lampard taking a more peripheral role, while Eden Hazard and Oscar, marquee signings seen as the exciting, attacking-minded future of the club, start the majority of games.
But his consistency and dedication to the cause have never been in doubt. Lampard is just eight goals away from breaking Bobby Tambling's record as the Blues’ most prolific goalscorer, and has seen nine different managers preside over the club since he joined in 2001; only one of them having exited of their own accord. André Villas-Boas failed to find the right balance between youth and veterans, which led to his downfall, before the older players were successfully reintroduced by his successor Roberto di Matteo. So another element of uncertainty continues to linger and multiply.
With Chelsea having already lost the finals of the Super Cup, Community Shield and Club World Cup, and become the first team defending the Champions League to exit at the group stage, Benítez can scarcely afford to let the domestic title become fully out of sight by January. Tom Parfitt @tparf
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