Roman Abramovich is "really pleased" with progress at Chelsea, according to the man hired to ensure that the club the Russian has lavished with £1b do not drop out of the Champions League places as well as surrendering the European Cup.
Abramovich returned to the UK last week after his habitual mid-winter Caribbean break and did not hesitate to check in with Rafael Benitez following Chelsea's snow-flecked 2-1 win over Arsenal. Victory made for a benign backdrop to the meeting, and if the oligarch is vexed by Chelsea's fluctuating results under Benitez, he apparently did not let the interim manager know it.
"Without giving too many details, he was really pleased with the game," Benitez said yesterday. "He has ideas. I do, too. We share ideas. It's fine. We explained to each other what we're trying to do. It's fine. The other day I had time with him and I was really pleased."
Benitez was speaking as he prepared for the journey to Swansea, where tonight his side will have to overhaul a two-goal deficit from the first leg if they are to reach the League Cup final.
Abramovich has much on his mind, not least who to appoint as manager on a full-time basis, and Benitez knows that, despite continued abuse from Chelsea fans, his seven-month audition would be hugely enhanced by a trophy.
He offered a strong defence of his work so far, seeing progress even in defeat. "We didn't have a pre-season. We were in Japan. We had Terry and Lampard injured, but the stats say we're scoring more goals, conceding less.
"Even in the games we've lost, the team have still done well. Look at any of these games: Corinthians, Swansea, QPR, West Ham... the team were in a transitional period, with some new players needing to settle down and other coming to the end of the contract, it's a team that's improving, growing.
"As a manager you have to be satisfied with this. We have to do better to win trophies, but the priority for the club is to be in the top four and try to win trophies at the same time."
Chelsea had the chance to win seven titles when the season began. Four of those, including the Champions League defence, have already gone, though only the Club World Cup was on the Spaniard's watch.
Elimination from this tournament one game from Wembley would be all his own work, however, raising the stakes significantly. This, and Abramovich's return to his seat in the stands, may explain Benitez's slightly skittish mood.
He has been accommodating and open with the media since his return to England in November, but yesterday found him more reluctant than ever to discuss anything other than tactics and football. "We have a window for football, tactics, and Swansea, and another window for other things," he said gnomically, and only one of them was open.
Benitez acknowledged there was pressure, but said he was confident that, even on Swansea's own patch, it can be done.
"Yes, we have confidence that we can do it. Obviously we will play against a good team. But remember the first leg: there were a lot of chances, we made two mistakes and they scored. We have to manage the situation but, games away, we're good. We can do it."
The mistakes he referred to were two howlers from Branislav Ivanovic that gifted Swansea the game a fortnight ago. John Terry's return might make the back-four more secure, but Benitez indicated he would remain on the bench, and would not guarantee that he remains first-choice.
"It's been 16 weeks without training. He's been training with the team maybe only four or five sessions. He's doing a specific programme and doing well, and we're happy, but it depends if he's ready to play the games or not." So is a fit Terry still first-choice? "That's a question when he's fully fit, I'll answer it then." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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