Rarely can a 6-1 victory have been met with such palpable disappointment.
Last night should have been a redemptive moment for a club in need of a lift, but instead a hammering of Nordsjaelland only provoked more soul-searching at Chelsea, their fate determined 1,700 miles away in Donetsk. For Rafa Benitez, meanwhile, it is doubtful whether such an ample victory will have any appreciable impact on his personal approval ratings. This was a futile and facile night all round.
Benitez enjoyed a belated first victory since his controversial ascension to the Stamford Bridge throne, while the fallen £50 million striker he has been tasked with rejuvenating, Fernando Torres, finally took his apparent training ground form into a proper match, scoring twice in a game for the first time since March. But if a 6-1 win could ever said to be pointless - or greeted with a feeling of overwhelming emptiness - this was it. Chelsea's was a thumping victory that melted immediately into the ether, to be forgotten.
Although the song proclaiming Chelsea to be “Champions of Europe” was given a few final renditions at Stamford Bridge, now it must be retired. That brutal reality sunk in as a 1-0 win for Juventus at Shakhtar Donetsk ensured the Italians progressed along with their Ukrainian opponents, and Chelsea were banished to the Europa League as the result of an inauspicious five group games under Roberto Di Matteo.
A group of supporters that have been trying to cling to the club’s past, both distant and more recent, were confronted with an awkward present: despite recording 10 points, Chelsea are the first European champions to be deposed at the group stage of the Champions League.
Paradoxically, by far the most impressive performance of Benitez’s short yet stormy reign brought the most tangible regret. The Spaniard cannot be blamed for Chelsea’s demise in Europe of course, and perhaps the manner of the victory, and a productive night’s work for Torres, will go a small percentage of the way to redeeming the Spanish manager in the eyes of Chelsea fans.
Then again, it may not. Not when Nordsjaelland were extremely poor, the visitors vulnerable from the very start of a chaotic first half that witnessed three penalties, only two of which were scored. By the time Chelsea cut loose in the second half and rattled in four goals in 20 minutes, Juventus were leading in Donetsk, making each additional strike in West London ultimately little else than an exercise in vanity.
Still, try telling Torres that his goals were obsolete. The striker ended a dry patch extending back to the start of November when tucking away a shot at the second attempt just before the break and then poking home from a cross from the excellent Eden Hazard. Having been praised by Benitez, somewhat laughably, for his goals in training and defensive work from corners, this was Torres finally doing what he is paid to do, albeit against desperately mediocre opposition. As Kasper Hjulmand, boss of the most porous defence in the competition, admitted: “We helped him.”
Torres even had the confidence to indulge in a ‘Rabona’ cross in the second half – the execution of which in most games this season would probably have ended with the striker sprawled on the floor, his legs entangled like a pair of iPod headphones dug out of the dark recesses of a backpack.
"He showed his desire and his quality,” said a satisfied Benitez. “If we play at that level he will score more goals. The team was playing well and if we play well he will score goals. I was watching him training and he was very, very sharp with more confidence."
Benitez could barely have wished for a better return for Torres than two goals – or a better scoreline following goalless draws against Manchester City and Fulham and a 3-1 loss to West Ham - yet ultimately both were worthless. It was a rout without consequences; a hammering without ramifications.
Benitez, though, spied reasons for optimism. "More than the win was the way we won: the character, attitude, intensity, chances created," he said. "They had a job to do and they accepted the responsibility. They couldn’t change things that had happened from previous weeks. It was out of our hands. But everything I have seen from the players is positive. They are progressing. They are improving. So I have to be pleased.”
If attitudes among Chelsea supporters are also to be transformed then some very entrenched views will have to be addressed. A smattering of boos met Benitez once again as he emerged on a frosty evening at Stamford Bridge and banners dotted around the ground paid tribute to the ghost of Chelsea managers past, rather than the Spanish apparition haunting their present.
The Shed End displayed a white sheet reading ‘Bring Back the Special One’, the West Stand’s answer was ‘Bring Back Di Matteo’. This is a club yearning for its past: a time when Chelsea were either champions of Europe or a time when they regularly fell just short under a beloved Portuguese.
Indeed, in a quirky piece of scheduling, ITV ran a documentary this week entitled ‘Mourinho’. An homage to a former hero of West London, it explored the career of the charismatic, brilliant Jose, charting his rise from translator to Sir Bobby Robson to titan of football management. For a collection of fans desperate to have their Chelsea back, it must have been an irresistible hour of nostalgia.
The picture it painted of Mourinho – toying with the press, embracing his players like a team-mate, lifting trophies from an open-top bus - contrasted starkly with the image most Chelsea fans have of Benitez: a man who is seen as a joyless, unloved outcast, incapable of restoring the club to former glories, to connect on any meaningful level with supporters.
The chance to resurrect the cult of Mourinho was untimely. Furthermore, Benitez had his own role in the documentary: playing the villain as his Liverpool side acted as the “kryptonite” to Mourinho’s all-conquering supermen in the Champions League - Chelsea's European disappointment becoming synonymous with the Liver Bird on his club blazer.
Viewers of the documentary were reminded of those interminable battles against the Merseysiders in the semi-finals of the competition in 2005 and 2007, the ‘phantom goal’ scored by Luis Garcia that left Mourinho so incensed. Such scars run deep. Those crimes against Chelsea have not been forgotten, and they will not be overturned by a win, even a 6-1 win.
Benitez cannot be blamed for the fact Chelsea now find themselves in the Europa League, humbled just 200 days after their triumph in Munich, but neither can he expect a five-goal triumph to turn supporters in his favour. Not when, ultimately, it meant nothing at all.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafa Benitez