LONDON (AFP) – Rafael Benitez was given a toxic welcome by Chelsea supporters as his first match as manager ended in a 0-0 draw at home to Premier League champions Manchester City on Sunday.
The Spaniard became a hate figure at Stamford Bridge in the previous decade when he was in charge of Liverpool, where he made a number of comments about Chelsea that were deemed unforgivable by a section of the Blues support.
Yet just how strongly the majority of those present for this match felt about him was a surprise, as Benitez’s name was loudly booed by thousands of supporters as soon as it was mentioned by the on-pitch announcer.
It only stopped when news that former Chelsea manager Dave Sexton had died was conveyed.
There was a minute’s applause in Sexton’s memory but afterwards the home fans sang in praise of Roberto Di Matteo, the man sacked to make way for Benitez, who was soon also told that he was “not wanted here”.
Placards with the words ‘Rafa out’ were also held up for the benefit of the television cameras.
Less eyebrow-raising was the restoration of Fernando Torres to the Chelsea starting line-up, after he was dropped for the 3-0 Champions League defeat at Juventus on Tuesday that prompted Di Matteo’s dismissal.
Torres enjoyed the most productive spell of his career under Benitez while they were together at Anfield, and there were rumours Di Matteo was fired for defying a directive from owner Roman Abramovich that Torres had to play.
Abramovich was in the stands for this game, watching impassively as usual, and it was noticeable that no chants were aimed directly at him.
The opening minutes saw neither side fashion a clear-cut chance, and the 16th minute saw Chelsea fans burst into sustained applause to hail Di Matteo, who had worn the number 16 shirt as a player at Stamford Bridge.
The first chance went to City, with David Silva heading just over after Pablo Zabaleta had picked him out in the box with a cross from the right.
Sergio Aguero was next to have a go as the Premier League champions began to get a grip on the game, but Cesar Azpilicueta threw himself in the way to make a block.
Chelsea threats were more sporadic, although City goalkeeper Joe Hart did have to punch away under pressure, but it was not long before Zabaleta was again posing problems at the other end and Petr Cech had to beat away a low drive.
City should have been ahead in the 42nd minute when Edin Dzeko’s knock-down fell perfectly for Aguero, but the Argentina international inexplicably headed straight into Cech’s arms.
Chelsea looked more lively in the second half, which saw Ramires fire a long-range effort over and at last a chance came Torres’ way after Eden Hazard had flicked the ball into his path, but though his shot was powerful enough to beat Hart, it was also too high.
City were pressing and Ashley Cole had to clear in front of his own goal after Dzeko, who was about to be replaced by Carlos Tevez, crossed from the left.
With seven minutes remaining, Torres went down in the box but referee Chris Foy was not interested in awarding a penalty.
There was a chance for City in stoppage-time but Cech was able to save Aleksandar Kolarov’s header from a corner and the final whistle marked 90 minutes that had failed to live up to the hype.
It left City in second, a point behind leaders Manchester United, and Chelsea in fourth, a point below West Bromwich Albion.