It’s one of those weird undefined things. Sometimes players go back to ex-clubs and are condemned roundly, others return to accolades and acclaim. The same is true of managers’ returns. Sometimes the reasons for opprobrium or applause are pretty obvious, with others, not so much. When Rafa Benitez arrives at Anfield as Interim First Team Coach of Chelsea on Sunday, it should certainly be a case of welcome rather than disdain. As the manager who brought the glory days of European triumph back to Liverpool, it’s the least that he deserves. Whether he will be regarded as warmly after the game however, will very much depend on the outcome of the game.
Following the midweek games, Chelsea’s position in the race with London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham to secure a top four spot has been somewhat strengthened. Spurs' game against Manchester City precedes the Anfield encounter, and should the North London club falter, the chance for Chelsea to further strengthen their hand will be obvious – especially as Spurs still have to visit Stamford Bridge.
A different Liverpool old boy will be viewed with less respect however. Due to the Benitez rotation policy, it’s highly likely that Demba Ba will lead the Blues’ line, but should Fernando Torres enter the fray, he can be assured of a welcome that is more fiery than warm. Letting it be known that you think a different club is better than your current one, is never going to endear you to the fans.
The prospects for a happy return for Benitez are on the up. Of late, Chelsea appear to have reconciled themselves to Rafa’s tenure, and recent performances have been progressive. Even the exhaustive recent programme of fixtures appears not to have blunted Chelsea’s cutting edge. Couple this with Liverpool’s fairly flat performance level at the moment, illustrated by the goalless draw at Reading on Saturday, and there appears sound logic for optimism for Chelsea fans.
Football is however a strange game to forecase. Liverpool have constantly been a ‘bogey’ team for the Londoners in League games. In the cup competitions it may have been different, but in the Premier League, the Merseysiders seem to have their opponents’ number. Looking at a quick match up of possible confrontations, Luis Suarez may prove key. Aside from the vastly improved and outstanding David Luiz, Chelsea’s rear-guard is not blessed with pace or agility. The staple diet of a defender to thump headers away will be largely redundant against the nippy Uruguayan, and there may be a packet of trouble awaiting Chelsea if the striker is in the mood to impress.
It’s a difficult game to predict – in the Premier League, which one isn’t? None of the three possible outcomes would be a major shock, so I guess, at the danger of getting splinters in my backside, I think it’s entirely sensible to look at the game ending even. If other results go in their favour, a point would be no bad result for Chelsea, and with pride at stake for the Reds, it’s a fairly acceptable outcome for them too.
In the interests of throwing a rock into the pool though, let me paint a quick picture. It’s a tight goalless game and with ten minutes left, Benitez throws Torres on – ‘Duckman mask and all. As time is running out, the Spaniard breaks through, rounds the ‘keeper and rolls it into the net in front of the Kop. I’m not saying it is likely to happen, but the reaction if it does, would make anything that greets a Rooney goal at the same end look pretty tame.