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Benitez gaining grudging respect at Chelsea

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 3, 2013 at 10:04 am •  Published: May 3, 2013

Chants of "Jose Mourinho" rang around all four sides of Stamford Bridge. Fans sang loud and proud about club stalwarts Frank Lampard and John Terry, too.

Still nothing, though, for the man who has defied debilitating circumstances to guide Chelsea to a second straight European final as well as the brink of a return to the Champions League.

Rafa Benitez knows full well he'll never be accepted by Chelsea supporters following his past comments about the club during his time as Liverpool manager, but it's hard not to notice the grudging respect toward the Spaniard as his short-term reign approaches its end.

Once greeted with boos and jeers as he emerged from the tunnel before matches, now there is just a stony silence that will still be music to the ears of Benitez. Fans on website forums and radio phone-ins are even starting to credit the job he is doing, justifiably so.

Considering the team's crazy fixture schedule — it's 64 matches and counting this season — and the hostility he's had to cope with since joining as interim manager in November, Benitez will leave Chelsea this summer with his reputation enhanced and possibly another trophy on his impressive CV.

"With all the circumstances that were around at the beginning — the situation with the squad, being without (January signing) Demba Ba, a team in transition — we've done a good job," Benitez said on Thursday after Chelsea's 3-1 win over Basel that set up a Europa League final against Benfica on May 15.

"We were professional trying to improve things without much time, because we've been playing twice a week, and we did well. Hopefully we can finish even better."

His famous outburst after an FA Cup win at Middlesbrough in February could go down as a turning point in Chelsea's season. Benitez stated in a feisty post-match news conference that he would definitely be leaving the club at the end of his interim stay, before criticizing fans for not getting behind him and the club's hierarchy for giving him the "interim" tag.

There have been few murmurs since, helped by the fact that Chelsea has lost only four of its 16 matches in the past two months — two of those defeats coming in away legs in the Europa League. Chelsea has won all eight of its home games in that period.

Chelsea was unbeaten in its four Premier League games, earning Benitez the manager of the month award for April, the first time a Chelsea boss has won the accolade since Carlo Ancelotti in 2011.

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