Benitez future in doubt as dark clouds gather at Dalian

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Dalian Yifang's Yannick Carrasco (right) vies for possession with Tianjin Tianhai's Zhang Cheng during Wednesday night's Chinese Super League game in Tianjin. The host won 5-1. XINHUA

Dalian Yifang's 5-1 thrashing at Tianjin Tianhai on Wednesday has fueled mounting speculation that Rafa Benitez's days at the northeastern club could be numbered.

Having successfully steered Dalian away from the relegation zone since arriving from Newcastle United in July, Benitez has seen his side struggle to make further inroads in the latter stages of the campaign.

The team's expensively assembled foreign front three - Marek Hamsik, Salomon Rondon and Yannick Carrasco - again failed to fire on Wednesday as struggling Tianhai ran riot.

Incredibly, the host found itself 4-0 up by halftime, with the introduction of Emmanuel Boateng for the ineffective Carrasco after the break failing to inspire a Dalian comeback. Indeed, things went from bad to worse for the visitor when midfielder Cui Ming'an saw red with 14 minutes remaining.

The defeat leaves Dalian in 10th spot in the Chinese Super League, with just one game remaining, against already-relegated Beijing Renhe on Sunday.

The combination of Dalian's shocking capitulation and British reports that Benitez is being lined up to replace under-fire West Ham manager Manuel Pellegrini have left many fans believing Sunday's game could be the Spaniard's last in China.

Earlier this month, Benitez told BBC podcast Football Daily that he was looking forward to his second season in the CSL, although admitted that adjusting to the language had proved a challenge both on and off the pitch. He also voiced concerns that Wanda-funded Dalian would have to perform well in the next transfer market in order to boost the squad's quota of homegrown talent.

"The foreign players can make a difference but it depends on the others.... If you don't have very good Chinese players it's very difficult to compete," Benitez told the BBC.

According to, Benitez was furious in the dressing-room after the Tianhai defeat, blasting his players for lacking fighting spirit.

The 59-year-old was at a loss to explain the limp performance in his post-match news conference, adding that he hoped to see a drastic improvement next term.

Benitez refrained from singling out specific players for criticism, but added that the very least he demands from his team is effort and a positive attitude, before hinting that some members of his squad could be headed for the exit door in the offseason.

Star playmaker Hamsik described his team's display as "unacceptable".

"We cannot lose a match in this way. For the fans, this is not acceptable. We have to react in the right way in Sunday match's and produce a good performance!" said the former Napoli conjurer.

However, the result of a match kicking off hours earlier in London may well have a bigger bearing on Benitez's future.

Defeat for struggling West Ham at Chelsea on Saturday could see the Hammers board finally lose patience with Pellegrini, with British media widely reporting that Benitez could be the man to succeed the Chilean.

Benitez is still held in high esteem in England, having famously led Liverpool to the 2005 Champions League trophy and performed admirably with a limited budget in his last Premier League job at Newcastle.

Benitez's family still lives in England, and the Daily Mirror has reported that he is ready to take the West Ham hot seat, having turned it down in 2015 when Real Madrid came calling.

However, all Benitez's recent utterances on his future indicate he will resist any offers from England.

"Patience is the key word in China," Benitez wrote in his blog last month.

"You have to adapt to another way of doing things. There are obvious improvements already but we are still adjusting to the organization's structure, bringing in new people without forgetting the Chinese staff who will be crucial for the success of the project in the future."

In stark contrast to the glum mood in the Dalian dressing room, Wednesday's result sparked scenes of jubilation for Tianhai, with the three points saving it from the drop following a tumultuous season for the club.

"Thank you, Dalian", Tianjin fans were heard to roar from the stands, compounding the visitor's humiliation.

"Before the match, our coach told us this is a life-or-death moment, and we have to come back alive," said Tianjin striker Yang Xu. "We scored quickly after the game started and everything went smoothly from there.

"I want to thank all my brothers in the team and all the brothers who are on loan at our team. Thank you all. Since the start of this season, we have changed four head coaches. Now, we are still together and we did not give up."

Tianjin coach Li Weifeng, who only took the reins in October, said: "I told all the players that this match is a do-or-die moment. We don't have to save anything for any other match. We should only try our best and play like a team."

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