Does Arsène Wenger have an inside line on the Chelsea managerial situation that has so far remained under wraps? Given his standing in the game and the fact that he can count on the odd contact, it is fair to view the Arsenal manager as a credible source.
Chelsea have now had the confirmation that Pep Guardiola will not become their next permanent manager. They had come to realise that their long-time target would spurn their advances well before Wednesday's bombshell announcement from Bavaria that Bayern Munich had secured the Catalan's signature on a pre-contract and they will consider, in due course, the merits of José Mourinho, Michael Laudrup and Jürgen Klopp, among others.
The man who does not appear to merit serious consideration is the incumbent, Rafael Benítez, whose job title carries the pejorative prefix of "interim" and who has cut an under-fire figure when he sets foot in the Stamford Bridge dugout. The no‑strings arrangement until the end of the season may suit the Spaniard, who would be a contender for the Real Madrid job should Mourinho depart in the summer. Wenger, though, has his own take on the affair.
"Well, it is not necessarily an interim manager," he said. "Because maybe he [Benítez] will stay there for longer. Maybe, they didn't know him well and they said, 'OK, you come, if you do well, you stay for longer.' Certainly, that is somewhere in his contract. Or maybe he has signed for longer, I don't know. He is a top-class manager. So you never know what is sold and what is behind."
It was put to Wenger that Benítez's longer-term appointment would feel unsustainable, in light of his unpopularity with a loud section of the Stamford Bridge crowd. "I believe that the most important thing is the competence of the man who works," Wenger replied. "If you respond to all the rest, you will never have any stability."
Chelsea's support, particularly the anti‑Benítez brigade, will seek the ulterior motive to Wenger's comments, coming as they do in the countdown to Arsenal's Premier League visit to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. They will surely decry them, and not only because they suggest that the complaints of fans, however vigorous, ought not to have any influence on managerial selection policy.
Wenger also said, with a smile, that he felt "sympathy for every manager until the day I play against him … then, the sympathy goes and comes back after the game, although not always straight after the game."
His general theme concerned the need to blot out the background noise, to show mental toughness in the face of hostility and it has applied equally of late to him and his club, even if the root causes of the frustration of some Arsenal supporters have been different to those of their Chelsea counterparts. Irked at seven seasons without a trophy and the more recent failure to challenge credibly for the title, Arsenal followers have come to see big-money signings as the balm to their ills.
Even Spike Lee, the American film director and Arsenal fan, popped up on Sky Sports News on Wednesday night to offer his opinion on the current situation at the club. "They gotta spend some money and get some players," he said.
The nervous tension at Emirates Stadium can seem palpable, as does the antipathy towards Benítez at Stamford Bridge, which hurtles to the fore when scorelines go the wrong way. The boos rang out again after Wednesday's 2-2 draw with Southampton, which prolonged Benítez's run of poor results on home turf since his appointment in late November. In seven matches in all competitions, his team have won two, drawn three and lost two. Benítez was reminded on Wednesday that he was "not wanted here". His away record, by contrast, is excellent, with six wins in seven domestic trips.
It is tempting to bill Sunday's derby as the battle of the teams with the issues at home and if the negative vibes filter down to the players, then Arsenal may appear to have a perverse advantage at the venue where they triumphed 5-3 last season. Wenger did say that "we have to try and take advantage" of the Stamford Bridge's crowd dissatisfaction with Benítez.
"The confidence of the crowd in the team plays a big part," Wenger said. "Of course, it tests the mental strength of the players [and] for young players especially, it is not easy. Has it affected us at the Emirates? If I say that, people will say that I look for easy excuses, which I don't want to do. It is, as well, part of our job to deal with that.
"The only thing I can say is that it is easier to play in a positive environment than in a negative environment but it is part of a football player's career to deal with both sides. We have all played in hostile atmospheres. It should not stop you from playing."
Wenger revealed he had "always encouraged Guardiola to come to England" but he added that the former Barcelona coach's decision to commit to Bayern was hardly a "backward step." "Germany, maybe along with Spain, are a country with the best young players," Wenger said. "Tomorrow's football will be played in Germany, certainly."
Benítez has maintained that he does not look beyond the next game. Wenger wonders why not.
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