The motives of Chelsea's interim manager are unclear but he was unwise to pick a fight with Roman Abramovich
The switch had flicked towards the end of Rafael Benítez's second post-match television interview on the touchline at the Riverside late on Wednesday. The Spaniard had been asked a relatively innocuous question by Al-Jazeera about reports of negativity within the Chelsea dressing room, the kind of query he has batted away for weeks, but, having apparently misconstrued the interviewer's intention, the red mist descended.
Cue the monologue lambasting a fan "agenda" and, more bafflingly, the hierarchy's "mistake" in labelling him merely as an interim, a diatribe prolonged from television to radio interviews to his press conference with written journalists as he dug himself further and further into a hole.
If the club's top brass do not yet deem his position untenable, despite what could easily have been construed as a direct criticism of Roman Abramovich over Benítez's job title, then the poison that will greet him in the dugout against West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on Saturday may prove the breaking point. Allowing him to take to the touchline then is tantamount to throwing him to the wolves, not the Baggies.
While the timing of his riposte after 99 days of abuse might have felt surprising given Middlesbrough had just been beaten, his willingness to take on authority is not. Benítez has always been a political animal, a manager prone to misjudging just how much clout he possesses even at clubs where he has excelled. He may not have mentioned Abramovich by name at any point on Teesside but the implication was all too obvious in his criticisms, and he cannot beat the oligarch.
Just as he could not defeat those who have employed him before. At Valencia he had briefly infuriated his players by banning normal ice cream from the training ground – he preferred a variety made from skimmed milk and rice – even if success on the pitch won them over. Yet his issues with the sporting director, Jesús García Pitarch, ran deeper and could not be repaired by two La Liga titles and a Uefa Cup, Valencia having shattered the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The pair fell out over transfer policy. "I asked for a table and they bought me a lamp," said Benítez and, with that challenge, the hierarchy were alienated. Liverpool were an attractive escape route.
On Merseyside there was a Champions League and an FA Cup to savour, yet life still became a slog of a power struggle behind the scenes. He had attacked the ownership following defeat in the European Cup final to Milan in 2007, his press conference the day after in Athens a demand for investment and reinvention at the club. There were fallouts with the chief executive Rick Parry and, subsequently, the managing director Christian Purslow and the new owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. His infamous attack on Sir Alex Ferguson, with all that talk of "facts", might have struck a chord with many but left him exposed as Liverpool's title challenge faded.
His departure did not feel surprising at the time, and nor did it at Internazionale when, having claimed the Club World Cup in Japan with victory over TP Mazembe, he publicly challenged the club president, Massimo Moratti, to invest in the squad. Mention Inter now and he still bristles with indignation, the talk switching quickly to broken promises. He had good reason to seek rejuvenation of José Mourinho's side but his approach to instigate it, so provoking Moratti, was akin to scribbling a suicide note. A startled president claimed the time was not right to reinforce and, within days, had sacked his manager of four months.
These are battles Benítez cannot win, even if there is invariably a logic behind his complaints, and yet he rarely seems reluctant to provoke. Lessons are not being learned, and the criticisms of the "interim" tag merely made him look irrational given he had appeared content to operate under that title up until Wednesday. When his representative was negotiating the terms of his employment in November in the wake of Roberto Di Matteo's dismissal, Chelsea had proposed a deal that would automatically renew for a further 12 months if certain targets had been met. It was Benítez's agent who opted for the shorter-term arrangement, presumably in the hope that, should those objectives be met, a more attractive deal might be forthcoming.
There is the possibility the stand-in manager is actually establishing his arguments for when he departs in the summer: that he was damaged from the offset by the temporary nature of his employment, and that the fans were never going to accept him. The irony is that, with Chelsea claiming "business as usual" for now, Benítez could still technically walk away from his seven-month spell with the Europa League claimed, the FA Cup retained and a place in the Champions League restored.
The team's inconsistencies make that all feel unlikely but such a haul would mean he had fulfilled his brief – even enhanced his reputation. In that scenario, having braved Stamford Bridge might appear beneficial. Yet, on Saturday afternoon when the arena is transformed into a bear pit, such a notion will feel utterly ludicrous. The fans feel Benítez is wounded. They can smell blood.