LONDON – When Bruce Buck came on the pitch before Wednesday’s League Cup semifinal first leg against Swansea to make a presentation to Petr Cech, the Chelsea chairman was booed. Seriously booed.
There were a number of reasons for the supporters’ growing frustration, the sacking of the popular Roberto Di Matteo, the appointment of the extremely unpopular Rafa Benitez, Frank Lampard’s pending departure, plus the interim manager’s apparent blind faith in Fernando Torres, now relegated to No. 2 as the Stamford Bridge boo-boys’ targets following the arrival of Benitez.
The man responsible for these decisions and every major decision at Chelsea is not Buck, it is Roman Abramovich. All Chelsea fans are aware of this, the anger of those at the Bridge was misdirected and they know it. They refuse to vent their frustration at the real villain, presumably because they think the paymaster and his money might leave, so they take it out on people like Buck and Benitez.
Buck and the board are not consulted about who the Russian wants to hire or fire. Abramovich is a one-man band, a billionaire who has obviously done more right than wrong business-wise. And he is never questioned, a perk of being a billionaire.
It is impossible to imagine a scenario where any of the Chelsea inner sanctum would stand up and say: “I’m sorry I think you are wrong.” They can think it, but not say it.
If winning silverware is the yardstick for whether the man at the top is making the right decisions, then Chelsea’s continued success means Abramovich’s erratic way is also the right way for this club. But there is a toxic atmosphere of growing negativity at the Bridge where the gap between supporters and the club is now a chasm, though not a single “Abramovich out” banner has been spotted.
The fans boo just about anyone but the person they know they should jeer, shooting the messenger rather than the author. We want your money, but not necessarily you.
The 2-0 defeat by Swansea was the fourth of Benitez’s six home games in which Chelsea had failed to score. It didn’t matter that Swansea’s goals came from two howlers by Branislav Ivanovic, the finger of blame had to be pointed at Benitez. Supporters chanted “Jose Mourinho” and “Roberto Di Matteo,” who were both sacked by Abramovich despite winning the title and Champions League, respectively. They can sing what they want, but it will not affect Abramovich in the slightest.
The good news for the supporters is that Benitez’s chances of becoming Chelsea’s permanent manager are decreasing because Abramovich expects the Blues to win every competition, though even a regular supply of silverware has not stopped the Russian from opening the managerial exit door. Under Benitez, Chelsea lost the Club World Cup, it is facing defeat in the League Cup semifinal and bar a miracle will not win the Premier League. It may not be Benitez’s fault, but that’s the way life is at Chelsea.
There were groans, putting it mildly, when Torres’ name was read out on Wednesday and the inevitable criticism of Benitez for staying loyal to his fellow countryman. Torres was poor, but he is Chelsea’s leading goal scorer with 14 in 32 matches, just under a goal every other game which is hardly the strike rate of a useless (fans’ description, not mine) center-forward.
Benitez’s reason for waiting until the 81st minute to replace Torres with Demba Ba was that Chelsea was not playing badly (64 percent possession) and creating chances (20 to Swansea’s four). Another thought is that he is under orders from above to play Torres.
Where Benitez is blameless is the decision not to offer Lampard and possibly Ashley Cole a new contract, but if there is any flak flying at the Bridge these days, it finds the Spaniard like a heat-seeking missile.
BRADFORD CITY, eighth in League Two, is potentially 90 minutes from a place in next season’s Europa League. No honest, it is.
If — and it is a big if — Chelsea overcomes Swansea’s 2-0 lead in the League Cup semifinal second leg and meets Bradford, which leads Aston Villa 3-1 from their first leg, in the Wembley final the team from the fourth level of English football will be the most unlikeliest of European qualifiers, as long as the Blues finish in the top four and claim a Champions League place.
There have been derogatory comments in some quarters that Capital One, the American-based finance company, did not pay £30 million to sponsor a Bradford vs. Swansea League Cup final. I am not alone in thinking it would be a far better, more popular and intriguing final than Chelsea vs. Aston Villa, which has a strong element of been there, seen it and done it about it.
Under Michael Laudrup, Swansea has played some superb, open, attacking football and the Dane’s tactics at Stamford Bridge were spot-on. In Michu, a £2 million steal from Real Valladolid, the Swans have the bargain of the season with 16 goals in 25 matches. Ashley Williams’ displays make him as good a defender as there is in the Premier League this season.
In beating Wigan, Arsenal and Villa, Bradford has rightly won national praise, playing its one-touch slick passing style rather than route one pleasantly surprising those who do not watch Phil Parkinson’s side regularly. There are some marvelous stories from the club, such as Matt Duke, the goalkeeper who has overcome testicular cancer to produce man of the match displays.
Chelsea and Villa may yet ensure a more routine matchup at Wembley next month, but neutrals will hope for some new faces in Capital One’s inaugural final.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.