Rafa lost the plot SHAKY START … Rafa Benitez salutes rival Roberto Mancini
AND then there was one. Just one trophy left at the end of a season where so many of football’s prizes have slipped through their fingers.
And if Chelsea start their game in Basel on Thursday week as they set off in yesterday’s semi-final against Manchester City then they can kiss that one goodbye as well.
Not a great deal has made sense at Stamford Bridge this season. And here was another afternoon that had you scratching your head.
Chelsea started so poorly you could only deduce their minds and bodies were still in Moscow. Within a minute of the restart they were 2-0 down and lucky to only trail by that.
At this point, Rafa Benitez was right back in the firing line after the brief truce afforded by Chelsea reaching two semi-finals.
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Minds went back to the Capital One Cup semi-final second leg in Swansea when the Spaniard’s brain turned to confetti.
The game was crying out for the injection of fresh blood, but Benitez refused to budge.
When he did finally make changes in the 70th minute it was too little, too late.
Not for him the no-nonsense decision-making of Jose Mourinho, the gambler known to make three half-time substitutions.
No, because that would necessitate an admission either the tactics or the starting line-up had been wrong.
Mourinho, despite what his critics might say, has always been big enough to admit his mistakes.
Benitez, more than any other manager, is palpably incapable of doing so.
As Chelsea conceded their second yesterday you wanted to shout and scream and remind him of all of this.
It wasn’t until the 65th minute that he finally dusted himself down, took off John Obi Mikel and sent on Fernando Torres to partner Demba Ba.
Within 60 seconds Ba had scored to turn the match on its head.
Re-energised, re-focused and superbly led by Eden Hazard, Chelsea did everything but take the game into extra-time.
They surely would have if Benitez had sent on more replacements.
But he saw no need for Frank Lampard, Victor Moses or Yossi Benayoun. Nor even the inspirational leadership of John Terry.
Because leadership is the very thing this rather quiet, introspective Chelsea side lack at the moment.
In the end, neither Chelsea nor Benitez did quite enough as the West London club lost in the FA Cup for the first time in match at the new Wembley.
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And they couldn’t even use their massive fixture pile-up as an excuse. Or the fact they were playing their 59th game of the season.
No, that wouldn’t wash for one very good reason — the longer the game went on the stronger Chelsea became.
Which was some feat considering it was their sixth game in 16 days.
Now it’s Fulham at Craven Cottage on Wednesday and Liverpool and Anfield on Sunday — with Basel the following Thursday.
A local derby and a trip to one of their fiercest rivals is hardly what you need before being pitched in against a Basel side which plays an extremely high-tempo game.
Perhaps these then are the games that will break the camel’s back.
As for City, their speed out of the blocks should have killed off Chelsea for good and made a second-half revival impossible.
But they were still just about good enough to reach their second FA Cup final in three years with Yaya Toure gobbling up and spitting out Chelsea players like a combine-harvester at various stages.
So Wigan v Man City it is. With a preview on Wednesday at the Etihad. With so much still at stake in the league, no weakened teams, either.
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