Le Saux: Benitez may have Chelsea future

Former Chelsea full-back Graeme Le Saux believes the club’s current interim manager Rafael Benitez still has a chance of taking over at Stamford Bridge on a permanent basis.

Benitez arrived at Chelsea in November following the surprise sacking of Champions League-winning coach Roberto Di Matteo, a move which enraged the club’s fans.

The Spaniard has since been unable to win over supporters he initially riled during his tenure at Liverpool, when he suggested the Anfield club had a more passionate fanbase.

After a slow start, during which time Chelsea supporters protested vociferously against Benitez’s appointment, his team have found their form. The Blues have moved up into third place in the Premier League thanks to a run of five wins in seven, also qualifying for the Europa League final, where they will face Benfica in Amsterdam on May 15.

Le Saux, who played more than 250 matches for Chelsea across two spells in West London, explained to FourFourTwo that winning the Europa League, combined with a return to next season’s Champions League, would represent a relatively successful campaign for the Spaniard and his team.

"Winning the Europa League and finishing in the top four would constitute a successful season for Rafa Benitez, not least because the team have played so many games this season,” Le Saux said.

“That’s meant the manager has had to rotate players in and out of the team while maintaining some continuity and consistency with results.

"That also takes huge responsibility from the players, because they’ve had to accept they won’t play every game and that the team will change from match to match.”

Although Benitez still appears to be far from popular with Chelsea fans, the critical reaction to his appointment at least appears to have lessened.

“The atmosphere last night [in the Europa League semi-final second leg against Basel] was excellent - much better than when Rafa first took over,” Le Saux said.

"Everybody accepts that the fans will make their voices heard, that’s perfectly normal, but there came a point in the season when even the most staunch Chelsea fans changed their opinions, or at least learned to accept the situation - and they’ll be the first ones booking their tickets for Amsterdam."

Despite this easing of tensions, many fans would still be dead-set against Benitez’s reign continuing into the 2013/14 season, especially since former manager Jose Mourinho hinted he would be willing to return to the club following his Real Madrid side’s Champions League exit on Tuesday.

But Le Saux, who left Stamford Bridge 12 months prior to the Portuguese’s arrival, said speculation should be saved for the close season. The Channel Islander also suggested the club may decide to stick with Benitez, despite fans’ protestations.

"It's amazing how much people are speculating on who the next manager is going to be. I always believe you have to respect the current manager, and he has to think about the opportunities that lie ahead for him and the team between now and the end of the season.

“Jose Mourinho saying he wants to go somewhere he is loved, is typical Jose, isn’t it? He’s got a huge amount of attention around his departure from Real Madrid, and he'll try and do the best for himself. It’s up to him and the clubs interested to negotiate a deal that suits everybody.

“Whether he’ll end up at Chelsea, I’m not willing to speculate, but if he does end up back at Stamford Bridge it will bring a smile to a lot of people’s faces. There would certainly be a huge group of journalists at Stamford Bridge for his first press conference.

“But the club have to identify the best candidate for the job. It may well be that it's Benitez and they put him on a long-term contract. That’s for the club to decide, but from what I understand that decision hasn’t been made yet.

“Personally, I think Benitez has done a good job.”

Benitez was named Premier League Manager of the Month for April, having seen his side take 10 points from four matches during the month. On Sunday, Chelsea face newly-crowned Premier League champions Manchester United in a match which could go a long way to deciding which European competition they feature in next season.

“They’ve got four games left in the Barclays Premier League, and the Spurs game [next Wednesday] is the one people are looking at as the vital fixture,” Le Saux said.

“Chelsea are in the best position of the teams fighting for the last two Champions League positions, and I feel confident they’ll pick up enough points to qualify.”

By James Maw

Graeme Le Saux, chair of the judges for the Barclays Community Sports Awards, was speaking ahead of the End of Season Awards’ Lunch. The Awards are given monthly to those who have made outstanding contributions to grassroots sport with an overall winner chosen at the end of the football season. To enter your local community sports hero for next season’s awards visit: barclayscommunitysportsaward.com