By Jonathan Wilson
Talk of a title challenge from Chelsea was always fanciful.
True, after Manchester United threw away an eight-point lead in the final weeks of last season, they no longer have the implacable aura of old, but still, to overhaul a 14-point deficit, even with two games in hand, was always going to be almost impossible. And yet until Wednesday it had seemed possible. Chelsea had won four in a row in the Premier League and seven out of eight in all competitions. They seemed to have the remorselessness of a side that had a serious title challenge in hand. And then they met Queen's Park Rangers.
This was a game it was almost impossible to conceive Chelsea not winning. QPR had been abject in losing 3-0 to Liverpool on Sunday, while Chelsea had been impressive in winning at Everton. QPR hadn't won in the league at Stamford Bridge since 1983. Yet Chelsea, changing their entire midfield trident from Sunday, never really got going and had yielded a couple of decent chances even before the winner flew in 12 minutes from time. To add insult to injury, it was scored by Shaun Wright-Phillips, who hadn't scored for 969 days and who managed just one league goal at Stamford Bridge in his three seasons at Chelsea.
So for Chelsea, ambitions will have to be downgraded. Finishing in the top three is now the realistic goal - which, in fairness to Benitez, was probably the case when he took over. "I said before we had to do everything perfect [if there was to be a chance of winning the league] so this makes it difficult," Benitez said. He inherited a six-point deficit and, in the three games it took him to settle in, that gap increased to 10. It's hard to deny that Chelsea are better organised now than they were under Roberto Di Matteo - in the latter days at least.
In retrospect, bringing in Victor Moses, Oscar and Marko Marin - who probably should have been sent off for an ugly lunge at Stephane Mbia four minutes into his first league start - will look like an error, but one man's obsessive tinkering is another man's wise rotation. "We were doing well, confident we could carry on doing well," Benitez said. "We changed some players because you could see some players were a little bit tired. We were not precise in possession, not passing the ball at high tempo. There were too many things together not working for us. We can't carry on with same players every game. If you play against the team at the bottom of table at home, you have to trust your players. We didn't have the intensity or the pace we were expecting. Sometimes you have to do these things if you want to win the prize."
Fernando Torres had a quiet night, perhaps fatigued. Benitez clearly had him in mind as he said "There are two or three players who have been playing too many games." If Demba Ba is, as seems likely, on his way from Newcastle United that at least offers one further attacking option, although it says much for the weirdness of Chelsea's summer business that they should be in a position in which they are forced to keep fielding the same inconsistent forward.
It wasn't as though Chelsea played particularly badly: they had 25 chances to QPR's seven, 64% of possession and 14 corners to two.
Perhaps there was a lack of hardness or a lack of precision but it was a game that for most managers in most circumstances could have been written off as one of those things. These, though, are not most circumstances and Benitez is not most managers.
The sense generally is of a thaw in relations between Benitez and the Chelsea fans. There were still chants for Di Matteo after 16 minutes on Wednesday, remembering the shirt number the former manager wore when a midfielder at the club in the nineties, but there were no anti-Benitez chants and when, after 25 minutes, he volleyed a ball back onto the pitch there was the usual instinctive cheer; a month ago, you suspect, that spontaneous show of warmth might have been swallowed.
Had Benitez been able somehow to mastermind a fight back, had Chelsea been able to reel in Manchester United and Manchester City, it would have been a tremendous two fingers from Benitez to, well, to just about everybody: to those Chelsea fans who booed him in his first game in charge, to all those who questioned him in his later days at Liverpool and at Internazionale and, perhaps most of all, to all logic and good sense.
The way to win trophies is not to change manager and approach every few months, not to blunder blindly from one bright idea to the next.
Somehow the absence of a plan, the patching up of a nine-year plan that remains irredeemably short-term won them the Champions League in brilliantly dramatic but preposterous circumstances in May. The idea that it could somehow bring them a league title a year later was ludicrous.
The reality of Chelsea is that it barely matters who the manager is; the instability remains greater than any individual. Benitez may yet bring other silverware - he has a League Cup semi-final first leg to play against Swansea next week, as well as the FA Cup and the Europa League - but what is necessary for Chelsea is a long-term plan. That is as true now as it was when Jose Mourinho left the club in 2007. The more managers who come through the club the harder it is for each subsequent one to succeed and the harder it is to assess their performance. Is Benitez, despite the disapproval of the crowd, the right man for Chelsea? The truth is it's almost impossible to tell.