Rafael Benítez will run a gauntlet of hate at Stamford Bridge on Saturday as Chelsea's livid support, so riled by his suggestion that their antipathy towards him is damaging the image of the club, renew calls for him to be relieved of his duties with immediate effect.
The Spaniard remains in charge of the European champions and will oversee the visit of West Bromwich Albion despite voicing his frustration at the fans and, more pertinently, his unprecedented criticisms of the Chelsea hierarchy for bestowing him with the title "interim" first-team manager. Yet the chief executive, Ron Gourlay, who was pitch-side at training at Cobham on Thursday, and the chairman, Bruce Buck, will watch on with interest on Saturday tomorrow and gauge whether the poisonous atmosphere is threatening the side's progress.
While Chelsea are not minded at present to replace their temporary manager, who took up the reins only last November following the abrupt dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo, prior to the expiry of his contract at the end of the season, they are acutely aware of the necessity to qualify for the Champions League.
Chelsea are two points ahead of fifth-placed Arsenal, having won only twice in six league outings, and the prolongation of that scrappy form will risk necessitating another change before the end of the campaign. Certainly defeat by West Bromwich, the side who effectively accounted for both André Villas-Boas and Di Matteo, would prompt immediate action.
Benítez, who retains support of some key players – most notably David Luiz and Juan Mata – oversaw a training session with a skeleton squad at Cobham on Thursday and, having left after lunch, subsequently conducted an interview with the BBC's Football Focus programme in which he claimed his relationship with Roman Abramovich remains strong. He reiterated his desire to see out his contract, having conceded the night before that he would not be retained at the club beyond June.
"My relationship with the staff at Cobham is really good, fantastic," he said. "My relationship with the owner is really good. Every time we talk about football I enjoy it. I know he wants to win and I will try to do my best to the last day. But the relationship is fine. I don't have any problems with anyone. I can be happy if we win a game, disappointed if we don't, but after that I have conversations with [the sporting director] Michael Emenalo every single day. We have good conversations, talk about football. When I meet with Roman Abramovich we talk about football. He will say, 'I don't like this' or 'I don't like that', but we talk like normal people and share a passion for football."
His apparent frustration at the inclusion of "interim" in his title surprised senior figures at the club given that Benítez had not appeared to have a problem with that job description prior to Wednesday. Indeed his agent had insisted during negotiations to succeed Di Matteo that his client be granted a short-term deal until the summer, rather than the offer initially put forward by Chelsea which would have seen his stay automatically prolonged by 12 months if certain targets were met.
"I wanted to express my idea that everybody knows I will finish my contract to the end of the season," said Benítez of his criticism of the supporters. "This group of fans that are singing or creating banners or whatever have to concentrate on supporting the team. The rest of the fans, the majority, know – as everybody knows – that it is really important to be in the Champions League next year. I'm thinking about my team. I'm thinking about my club. The way to help the team is to support the players every single game; at home it will be easier for us. But if they continue like Wednesday, singing when we were winning 0-2, that does no favours to our team or our players, especially when we are at home. It's important."
Yet the club's disgruntled support remain just as adamant that the manager's presence will not be tolerated. Benítez has been subjected to prolonged abuse, a legacy largely of his association with Liverpool and the rivalry that erupted between the two clubs during José Mourinho's spell at Stamford Bridge, since accepting the interim role in November. Senior board members have privately admitted to being taken aback by the ferocity of the disaffection towards Benítez, despite having acknowledged there would be initial objections to his arrival, but the abuse has been permanent and vociferous.
Around 1,900 Chelsea fans had travelled to the Riverside Stadium for Wednesday's FA Cup tie against Championship opponents, with the customary anti-Benítez chants sung most notably towards the end of the game once victory seemed assured. The mood will merely have been enflamed by the post-match comments, that sections of the fans had a "agenda", were "making a big mistake" and "damaging the image of the club".
While there are no plans to increase security around the home manager, fans are sure to express their anger at Saturday's game and are expected to bring new banners into the ground after the club clarified its policy on the issue.
A letter to the Chelsea Supporters' Group, in response to claims fans had been told to remove banners from the stadium, stated: "In the past year supporters have freely displayed banners and signs expressing a range of opinions without club intervention. There has been no change to this policy."
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