After defeating Basel last night and assuring a place in the Europa League final, many in the media were quick to praise Rafa Benitiez. Several seeemed to imply that he's not getting his due respect from Chelsea fans, with the following tweets being highlights of that sort of thinking:
Benitez has been in 2 CL finals, one UEFA Cup one and one Europa League final too (2 won). Fine European pedigree. If top 4, fine job a CFC— Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague) May 2, 2013
Rafael Benitez on the brink of taking Chelsea to the Europa League Final & not a flicker of recognition for him. Just more Mourinho chants.— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) May 2, 2013
So the new narrative seems like it's going to be that Rafa Benitez has done a fine job at Chelsea, and that those mean Chelsea fans just don't give him any respect. While the latter may actually be true at this point, it's still just too early to start claiming the former if it's ever going to be the case. Let's break down what has occurred since Rafa took over by looking at all 5 competitions we've played in* and seeing how we've performed, shall we?
*I'm not going to bother with the final group stage game of the Champions League, as it had little meaning
Shortly after taking charge, we set out for Japan to play in g the Club World Cup. We were heavy, heavy favorites against teams struggling domestically in Mexico and Brazil, and laid an egg in the final against Corinthians. Take nothing away from the fine job done by the Brazilian side here, but Chelsea didn't look prepared for that game at all and came up short against much weaker opposition. While I didn't really care about the competition myself, Rafa clearly did and we looked absolutely terrible. This gets a failing grade, and it's not really very close.
Next up, we have the League Cup. Rafa took over just after we reached the quarterfinal round by beating Manchester United. His first task was getting by Leeds, and he passed with flying colors. Next up was a 2-legged tie with Swansea. Swansea are a decent side, and losing to them should bring no shame on any given day. That said, we're a much better team than they are and really shouldn't lose over the course of 180 minutes. Win or lose, we certainly shouldn't fail to score against a side like Swansea over the course of 2 legs. Like the Club World Cup, there is really no way to describe the League Cup as anything but a massive failure.
The FA Cup was another story. With the exception of a blip against Brentford, I'd have to say our showing there was pretty solid. Going out with a whimper to Manchester City was disappointing, but certainly not shocking. Combined with a win and a draw with Manchester United, and it was a decent display in the cup we've come to dominate. I'll give interim a passing grade here, although I certainly would heap any sort of massive praise on the performance. Good job here Rafa...not great, but good.
We've gotten through 4 knockout rounds of the Europa League, and have now booked a place in the final on May 15. We were also the best team in this tournament (talent-wise) by a fair margin, and haven't exactly been drawn against a behemoth yet. I'm not going to knock aggregate wins against Basel, Rubin Kazan, Steaua Bucharest, and Sparta Prague, but I'm not going to call this a job well done until after the final in Amsterdam. Beat Benfica, and it's impossible to call the Europa League anything other than a success (despite the fact that we really should win against that opposition more often than not). Lose at the first real hurdle we face, and this one would end up being another disappointment for me. For now, this can't be given anything but an incomplete that could still go either way.
Finally, we'll look at the Premier League. When Rafa took over, we we're within fairly easy reach of Manchester United at the top and didn't look to be in too much danger of missing out on the top 4. As it stands now, we're in a dogfight for a Champions League spot and head to Old Trafford with United having clinched the title already.
Rafa can't be blamed at all for the blistering pace United set after he took over, as frankly, nobody was likely to finish above them with the way they were playing. That said, we've been worse on the whole than all of Arsenal, Manchester City, or Tottenham, and that just isn't acceptable. With 4 games still to play, this competition could look a lot of different ways when it's done. Win out, and he probably gets squeaks by with a passing grade from me. Win 3 of 4 to assure a 3rd place finish, and it gets a solid "meh". Claiming less than 9 points and counting on our opposition to screw up makes this one a clear failure for me, regardless of whether they choke away the needed points or not. This team is just too talented to be fighting for a 5th place finish, and personally, being in this position with just 4 games to play means we haven't done a "good job". Rafa can still pass here by the slightest of margins, but that's about the best he can possibly do.
Benitez has been better of late, of that, there can be little doubt. This will never be a good season though, and looking at the entirety of his body of work, it's hard to see this being anything we're ever going to look back on and praise. At best, we're looking at a single highlight in an otherwise dismal season. At worst, we're looking at possibly the most disappointing season in the history of this club. Beat Benfica and finish in the top 3, and you'll get a pat on the back on your way out the door from me due to finishing in a strong manner, and that will hopefully be the last time we ever have to talk about this year. Anything less, and it's just a massive failure that even Balague won't be able to talk up. Either way, it's too early to judge.