Rafael Benítez's tempestuous three-month stewardship of Chelsea reached breaking point last night after he was openly critical of the club's hierarchy for labelling him merely an "interim" manager, with the Spaniard finally rounding on those supporters who have been determined to undermine him at every turn.
In the course of a measured, apparently premeditated post-match monologue following his side's 2-0 FA Cup fifth-round win at Middlesbrough, Benítez claimed it had been "a mistake" for Roman Abramovich and his board to have made it so clear his employment was only temporary.
It seems a calculated gamble, prompting speculation as to whether he will still be in charge when Chelsea travel to Old Trafford for the quarter-final against Manchester United on Sunday 10 March or even for West Bromwich in the league on Saturday. Ominously, the board will discuss his future on Thursday.
Although apparently resigned to leaving west London when his contract expires in the summer, Benítez warned disgruntled fans that their "damaging agenda" is jeopardising the team's chances of silverware along with qualification for the next season's Champions League.
While not excessive, the abuse he received at the Riverside on Wednesday night was part of a depressing soundtrack to Chelsea's season since the former Liverpool manager replaced the sacked Roberto Di Matteo. "We don't care about Rafa" sang the visiting fans, alternating this with cries of "Super Frank" in homage to their favourite, Frank Lampard, who was on the bench and whom they believe to have been badly treated. "This group of fans are not doing any favours to the team, while they are wasting time singing and preparing banners," said Benítez. "They have to concentrate on supporting the team. Every game they continue singing and preparing banners they are wasting time. They have to take responsibility. They need to support the team."
He maintained that the dissenters represent a minority distorting the bigger picture. "They have to realise they are making a big mistake because the rest of the fans would like to see the team in the Champions League next year. They are not the majority but if that group of fans continue with their agenda, they are not supporting the team."
He suggested that, swayed by the hatred fuelled when his Liverpool team duelled with Chelsea during Champions League ties in the José Mourinho era, the fans were ignoring the reality that theirs is a side in transition and that Benítez is a top manager doing his best. "I am professional. I want to win every game but I will pick my team and make my decisions. I have been in charge of teams for 26 years and I've won trophies in three countries.
"The fans have to support the team and the players and we will do our jobs. If we cannot achieve what we expect to achieve, that is to be in the top four and be in the Champions League for next year, I will leave; they will stay in the Europa League. They don't realise that this is a team in transition. We have really good players with talent but it is a time of transition. I am trying to do my best and I will do my best until the end, the last minute.
"They can blame me for everything that goes wrong but if we get into the Champions League I will be the happiest man in the world, but I will leave because my contract ends." Asked if he could be tempted to stay on, Benítez smiled enigmatically. "We'll see," said a man who clearly expects to be elsewhere next season. "This minority are damaging the image of the club and that of the rest of the fans. Most people think Chelsea fans are all the same, they aren't – the majority are splendid.
"I understand the reasons [of the minority]. I was the Liverpool manager and we played Chelsea in some massive Champions League games but I want to clarify that I'm doing my best and if they carry on this agenda they are damaging the team and the club."
Benítez believes his enemies were encouraged by the word "interim", something he claims was attached to his name when discussions between his agent and senior Chelsea officials literally got lost in translation. "It's because someone made a mistake," he said. "They put my title [as] interim manager, and I will leave at the end of the season, so they don't need to waste time with me.
"Someone decided it but it was a mistake. I am the manager. Look what I've done in 26 years. I have won the Champions League, the Fifa World Cup, the FA Cup, the Italian Super Cup, the Spanish League twice, nine trophies, all the trophies you can win at club level."
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