Rafa Benitez can expect cold shoulder when Chelsea face Newcastle
Chelsea have been reunited with several familiar faces this season. Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah have both come back to haunt their former club by finding the back of the net for Manchester City and Liverpool respectively. Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku fared less well with neither making an impact as both Atletico Madrid and Manchester United lost their meetings with the Premier League champions.
Saturday will see another former Blue visit west London when Rafael Benitez brings his Newcastle side to Stamford Bridge. In general, Chelsea supporters are very accommodating to returning ex-players and managers, the parochial nature of fandom temporarily suspended in deference to that person's previous service. It would be some surprise, however, if Benitez was afforded any fanfare whatsoever.
The appointment of the former Liverpool boss in November 2013 following the dismissal of club legend Roberto Di Matteo set almost every Chelsea supporter aghast. Here was a man that had been at the heart of the action as the modern rivalry between Chelsea and Liverpool burgeoned through the previous decade. The rancour that constantly remained at boiling point thanks to several high stakes matches in the Champions League and Premier League as well as League Cup finals and FA Cup semifinals was exacerbated by the clear antipathy felt towards each other by Benitez and Jose Mourinho. Criticism of Chelsea supporters and their use of plastic flags in Champions League ties simply made the loathing from the Stamford Bridge stands towards the Spanish manager even more intense.
That the Chelsea hierarchy elected to dispense with the services of someone that had scored in three cup finals and managed the club to an historic Champions league win in 2012 and replace him with somebody whom many regarded as an enemy of the club was staggering. It seemed to highlight just how out of touch many at board level were with the paying punter. The chorus of boos that rained down on Benitez as he took charge of his first game at Stamford Bridge, a goalless draw against Manchester City, told the club suits exactly how they felt.
On Benitez's part, it was a curious job to accept. An intelligent and experienced person, he will have expected the vitriol that came his way though perhaps even he would not have realised that it would extend for pretty much the whole season. Football supporters are renowned for being fickle but at Chelsea feelings remained resolute until his inevitable exit at the end of the campaign.
The flipside though is that Benitez ultimately delivered on the brief given to him by owner Roman Abramovich. The season was in danger of imploding after a stuttering start in the league and was further undermined by Chelsea becoming the first European champions to fail to escape the group stages. By the end of the campaign Chelsea had recovered to claim the third automatic Champions League spot and by winning the Europa League final in Amsterdam had become only the fourth club in history to lift every major European honour after Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich. He oversaw 41 games in an epic 61 game season bloated by involvement in six different competitions and runs to at least the semifinal in three of them.
From the position Chelsea had been when he was recruited, silverware and a top three finish might have been enough to sway opinions for many other managers. But Benitez rarely did himself any favours. Regularly omitting club captain and stalwart John Terry seemed bizarre at the time but was made to look all the more ridiculous as the indomitable defender enjoyed a revival two seasons later as he led Chelsea to the Premier League title in imperious fashion.
Had Benitez managed to win the FIFA Club World Cup just weeks into his tenure then just maybe some of the mistrust from the fans might have been dampened. As it was a meek 1-0 defeat to a clearly inferior Corinthians side only helped to further undermine him. There was an 8-0 Boxing Day win over Aston Villa and victories over Arsenal and Manchester United but also home defeats to QPR and Swansea City.
Performances were erratic as a trend developed that saw Chelsea start slowly before radically improving after half time. Benitez's supporters might say that highlights the impact he can have during games; critics might ask why he was unable to exact such a response from his players from kick off.
And so to the present. Newcastle will arrive at Stamford Bridge having collected just one point from their last five matches. With Chelsea's hopes of retaining the title looking slimmer with every passing Manchester City victory and points becoming increasingly precious, Antonio Conte is unlikely to show his predecessor much sympathy.
A similar feeling will be felt in the stands. Whether Benitez is subjected to the deafening derision that "welcomed" his appointment or a mixture of quiet appreciation and total lack of acknowledgment as he raised the Europa League trophy aloft in the Amsterdam ArenA will be revealed on Saturday.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.