Rafa Benitez, arch rotator. That was the reputation the Spaniard developed at Liverpool, and not unfairly. This, of course, was a man who waited until his 100th game in charge, a Champions League tie against Bordeaux in November 2006, to name an unchanged side.
Benitez is still forced to defend his tendency for tweaking, verbally sparring with Ray Wilkins this week over his decision to take Ashley Cole out of the side to face Southampton at the weekend and, according to Chelsea's former caretaker manager, inviting the injury that followed two days later against Manchester United.
Wilkins’s twisted logic got the derisory rebuke it deserved - “I thought it was the first of April ... I have a degree in sports science from Spain, have spoken to many people about injuries; It’s the first time I ever heard anything like this” – but if a Chelsea predecessor had not already earned the nickname ‘Tinkerman’, it could sit nicely on Benitez’s shoulders.
The Spaniard’s treatment of John Terry is a case in point. After he suffered a knee injury against Liverpool in November, Benitez has meticulously managed his fitness, sparing him the rigours of two games a week in order to extract the maximum from Chelsea’s captain, leader, legend as the club enter a month that features no less than eight games.
The only curious thing about Benitez's rotation policy as regards Terry is that the games he is sparing the defender from are those that hold most importance for Chelsea's season.
Since suffering his injury when colliding with Luis Suarez in November, Terry has started only one match that would be regarded as genuinely high profile, and even then a visit to Newcastle in February is a bit of a stretch for that particular label.
In recent weeks Terry has been an unused substitute for games against Manchester United, twice, and Manchester City. Instead Benitez has fielded his captain against Steaua Bucharest and Sparta Prague in the Europa League and Middlesbrough in the FA Cup.
On Saturday and Monday, presented with severe fixture condition, Chelsea selected Terry on the former against Southampton in the league and not the latter, against United in the cup.
Benitez's use of his captain amounts to a rather significant downgrade in Terry’s Chelsea status, not that it has stirred up much of a furore with Frank Lampard’s contract shenanigans and pursuit of Bobby Tambling’s record taking precedence in the Stamford Bridge news agenda.
Terry always prided himself on being the man for the big occasion, Chelsea’s rock, but he occupies that rarefied strata no longer.
His is a career forged in febrile atmospheres, where Terry either invites opprobrium or commands devotion, not wallows in borderline apathy. And apathy was exactly what Thursday night’s match against Rubin Kazan tasted like, at least initially.
Just 32,000 were inside Stamford Bridge – about 50 of them Rubin fans – and a deathly silence was eventually punctured when kick-off mercifully arrived. The fact this was a Europa League contest only underlined the fact that Terry’s grip on the very top of the game has slipped fairly alarmingly.
The armband remains, though, and Terry was at his authoritative best on 53 minutes, cajoling David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta after Gokdeniz Karadeniz almost darted in between the two to get on the end of a deep cross.
There were a few unexpectedly flamboyant moments – a lovely 45-yard pass to find Victor Moses in the right channel; a no-look pass and then a floated ball up to Fernando Torres; a piece of control with the outside of his boot on the volley and then a flick over the head of an onrushing opponent without the ball touching the ground – yet his primary contribution was conceding a penalty when blocking a shot from Cristian Ansaldi with his arm after 40 minutes.
In truth, a fairly routine 3-1 win over Rubin told us nothing new about the player that is John Terry; what is surely instructive is that he was playing in the first place, and has been throughout Chelsea’s cup campaigns while he has started only two Premier League games in almost five months.
On Sunday, Chelsea host Sunderland in the league, and given that Gary Cahill has succumbed to injury Terry may well get a game. Then again, Branislav Ivanovic may be asked to start alongside David Luiz.
A more significant fixture will be the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on April 14. If Terry, as might be expected given Benitez’s established selection policy, is left out of the biggest game in the club’s season, it will truly underline how far his stock has fallen of late.
In February, Benitez described Terry’s inability to prove his fitness and win a regular place in the side as a “vicious circle”. It is one he has proved unable to break.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafa Benitez
- John Terry