Rafa Benitez has had the last laugh, after Chelsea’s last-ditch Europa League win over Benfica sent the club’s fans into raptures despite themselves.
But while the dignified Spaniard may be entitled to a moment of smugness in the wake of his success, instead he has retained the calm veneer that has characterised his fraught stint at the helm of the transitional Blues.
Hated by many from the moment he stepped through the Stamford Bridge door as Roberto Di Matteo’s replacement, Benitez has backed his detractors into the same uncomfortable corner Mario Balotelli did to racist Italians, when he was the star of the Azzurri’s Euro 2012 campaign.
It is mission accomplished for Benitez, whose main job was steer Chelsea to a top-four finish, after inheriting a side on the slide, that had shipped 21 goals in nine matches and had failed to win in four league games on the spin.
Apart from the February press conference when he lashed out at his haters amongst the Chelsea faithful, Benitez has kept his head down and focused on “doing a good job.” In any case, the record states that Chelsea have gone unbeaten in the Premier League since Benitez spoke his mind.
He now has a Europa League trophy to go with his two La Liga titles, the Uefa Cup, the Champions League and an assortment of domestic cup trophies.
He also has his reputation enhanced after a spell out of management, and can afford an ironic grin at the grudging respect of the Chelsea fans, some of whom reached out to embrace him as he led the side up the ramp to collect the Europa League trophy.
After last night’s match, Benitez resisted the urge to say ‘I told you so’, and spoke instead of his pride at the job well done by his staff and Chelsea’s players.
"It was a special night for everyone involved," he said. "I'm proud for all of them. I could see everyone was happy, so I was happy too. This was a reward for how hard we've been working all season. But I think it's sad to think we are now 'a success' when we have been doing our jobs for six or seven months.
"We have scored 145 goals this season, a record in the history of the club, and not conceded too many. The players are growing, improving. If you have to win before people realise the job you are doing... But we did win, so hopefully people will say: 'Yes, it's not bad.' If you analyse everything, we won the Europa League with just one available striker for every single game. We managed players with yellow cards, we did the same in the league, and if you put everything together you will realise how difficult it was with a squad that was not too big. We had 18 players today, with [Nathan] Ake on the bench.
"This is a team in transition with young players. It was quite difficult from the beginning, but you can see the commitment of the players out there. When you have a manager who is leaving and yet you see them still fighting hard right to the end, you have to be pleased. I think we did well."
Say what you like about Rafa the man, but his skill as a manager can only be lauded.
Chelsea have played 68 matches this season in 11 different countries, and many people railed as Benitez chopped and changed his squad.
But with fresh players like Oscar and Ramires driving the forward last night, the Blues were able to weather Benfica’s storm. And thanks to Rafa, Chelsea have some silverware this season.