Benitez needs men of steel

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By Matt Barlow

London – Sam Allardyce, freshly shorn of his charity moustache at the start of December, was pleased to see Chelsea struggling without their own symbol of masculinity.

“They’re missing John Terry,” said the West Ham manager after his side’s 3-1 victory. “I think they’re missing leadership.”

The Hammers had just demolished the European champions with three goals in 30 minutes and the sort of second-half monstering that Allardyce sides used to reserve for Arsenal.

West Ham’s desire and energy overwhelmed Chelsea, who dazzled briefly before surrendering meekly, looking far from the muscular, streetwise team built by Jose Mourinho.

When Rafa Benitez was at Liverpool, engaged in those epic red-blue duels which have returned to haunt him, he knew one thing: Mourinho’s teams never stopped fighting.

“Yes, they had a lot of character but it is a different time,” said Benitez. “We have young players in their first year in the Premier League. They have talent and they have quality but it is very physical, and if you cannot cope with that, you cannot show your quality.

“Some players might show character, but if one or two are not at the level, the team are suffering. That is what happened in the second half, so we needed to change players.

“You cannot just have quality and that’s it. You have to change things, adjust position, attitude, the way you play. Sometimes you cannot play on the floor, you have to clear the lines.

“Always character and leadership are necessary in a team. They have won the Champions League and a lot of trophies, they have to show that character, but they need confidence.’

Defeat will crush confidence a little more as Chelsea prepare for the final Champions League group game against Denmark’s Nordsjaelland on Wednesday, when they could become the first holders to crash out at the first stage of their defence.

Form is poor, the fans are mutinous, the interim manager fears his squad are not fit enough, character is being questioned and owner Roman Abramovich is furious that Benitez has failed to stop the rot in his first three games. There are vulnerabilities where before there were none.

With a tactical tweak and two half-time changes, Allardyce rattled Chelsea by attacking their back four in the channels between the centre halves and full backs.

Just as he invented the notion that Arsenal didn’t like it up ’em, he may have discovered the new Chelsea don’t either.

“You can see the quality they’ve got but in the second half they didn’t quite show as much resilience as they needed to,” said Allardyce. “They couldn’t change the way they played to cope with us. We changed the way we played to cope with them and expose them. They couldn’t do that against us in the second half.”

He was right. Chelsea did miss Terry to organise, cajole and resist as they conceded three goals in half an hour.

“We did not manage the physicality, the long balls, the second balls, the corners,” said Benitez. “That is when you have to show character and quality.”

Chelsea have not won in seven Barclays Premier League games. They are third but 10 points behind leaders Manchester United and the wintery slump ought to surprise nobody.

Trapped by the owner’s will to sign the world’s best players yet trim costs, Chelsea have launched into one campaign after another with a fine team but a squad ill-equipped to compete on all fronts.

It happened to Carlo Ancelotti in his second season, Roberto Di Matteo suffered too and Benitez was summoned, which was ironic since at Liverpool and Inter he was a passionate advocate of super squads and regular rotation.

Without this, the season may start well with a strong and fresh team but players tire – mentally and physically – as fixture pass and injuries strike.

At Chelsea, the manager pays with his job and someone like Benitez – or Di Matteo, Avram Grant or Guus Hiddink before him – tries to salvage something, usually by reverting to methods which worked in the past.

This year’s squad has cost more than £200million and contains bare patches, forcing Benitez to yearn for the return of Terry and Frank Lampard.

Chelsea have often kept crises at bay thanks to the strength and character inside the dressing room. For some, player-power has been the major long-term problem but it has often produced success, as it did last season.

Whether it can be done again is questionable. One key individual – Didier Drogba – has departed and the influence of others – Ashley Cole, Lampard and Terry – is diminishing.

Added to this is the polarising effect of Benitez, which has driven a wedge between the club and supporters. How the club have descended into such a mess within seven months of Munich is bewildering, even by their standards.

Sunderland follow Nordsjaelland then it’s off to Japan to contest the title of world champions, which sounds a little far-fetched for a side in such a rut.

Terry and Lampard will train for at least part of the session today but Benitez will resist the urge to rush them back for his personal gain. – Daily Mail

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