If this was hell, then Rafael Benítez may reflect that AC/DC were right: it ain't such a bad place to be. Like the Mayan apocalypse, the predicted pummelling of Benítez never came. Stamford Bridge was no cauldron of hate; nor was it a bowl of cheer. Rather the atmosphere was akin to something in between – such as, um, a casserole of awkwardness.
Three days after the Spaniard's angry denunciation of some Chelsea fans' angry denunciation of him, a smattering of supporters increased their vocal opposition to the interim manager, but most heeded his call to stick to encouraging the players and keep their dislike of him to themselves. Thus, for most of the afternoon, the home of Chelsea resembled that of feuding spouses putting on a peaceful front for the sake of the kids.
There were some dissenting banners. They were proudly homemade, as opposed to the club-issued plastic flags that Benítez mocked when manager of Liverpool. Some of them were witty: "Rafael Benítez, we're just not in ter im". Others were matter-of-fact: "Rafa Benítez, not wanted, never wanted". While the biggest was nonsensical: "Divided We Fall – Rafa Out". But the vast majority of banners were from supporters proclaiming their love for their team.
Before kick-off the crowd was tame. Perhaps the fans were keeping their powder dry so they could explode when Benítez appeared? After all, the buildup had suggested Benítez would face such hostility when he emerged from the tunnel that he would be well-advised to cover his head with a blanket, like an accused killer heading to court. But, as it transpired, he ambled out behind the team looking chilled and his detractors merely gave him the cold shoulder.
That was a popular strategy. A columnist in the latest edition of the cfcuk fanzine being sold outside the ground condemned Benítez as "poisonous", "deluded" and "a fraud", but announced he would not be on hand to vent such thoughts in person because he was continuing his boycott of the club's matches in protest at Benítez's employment. His was one of very few empty seats at Stamford Bridge.
Seated directly behind Benítez, meanwhile, was John Terry, again named as a substitute by the interim manager, whose decision to leave his back exposed to Terry might be considered a symbol of confidence. Or carelessness. The anointed "captain, leader, legend" of Chelsea likes to have his say on the goings-on at the club and in a week in which there have been rumours of discord in the dressing room, as well as the manager's much-publicised call for unity, Terry's programme notes offered his thoughts on the club's Ladies team, under-19s and under-18s – but not on the most prominent issue du jour. The crowd seemed to adopt a similar tone: they cheered Steve Clarke, the visiting manager returning to the club he served as a player and an assistant, and, in the 16th minute, they chorused their appreciation of Roberto Di Matteo before, later, chanting their love of José Mourinho. It made the absence of any songs for Benítez quite telling, like diners dispensing tips to everyone in a restaurant except the waiter.
As the match progressed, there was minor acknowledgement of Benítez's presence: a ripple of boos went around the ground when the ball bounced out to him on the sideline. Midway through the second half, with the match becoming a tad tedious as Chelsea could not add to their 1-0 lead and West Brom remained reluctant to attack, animosity momentarily became more audible, with entreaties of "Stand up if you hate Rafa" bringing a few hundred fans to their feet. Now it was Rafa's turn to ignore, as he concentrated instead on scribbling in his notepad. The unrest soon relented and, despite Albion finally mounting a threat in the dying minutes, Benítez beamed in the press conference. "I am smiling," he said, in case anyone failed to notice. "I was really pleased with the fans behind the team and really pleased that the players played with more confidence." Asked whether he believed his plea for unity in midweek achieved the desired effect, he repeated: "I don't know, but what I could see was the players playing with more confidence and the fans being behind the team."
It was put to him that they were not, for all that, behind him. "It's about the team," he replied. On Saturday, at least, most Chelsea fans agreed with him.