First the World then Premier League: Rafa
Published 15/12/2012 | 05:00
RAFA BENITEZ will take the microphone on the flight back from Japan and tell his Chelsea players they can win the Premier League.
If they are crowned champions of the world by overcoming Corinthians tomorrow, Benitez believes their chance of making up the 10-point deficit on the leaders Manchester United will be easier.
When encountered at Chelsea's hotel in Yokohama, Benitez was in bullish mood, insisting he can organise Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Eden Hazard and company into genuine title challengers, emphasising that he also has the experience of overturning opponents' leads.
"At Valencia we were eight points behind Real Madrid in January (2004) and were in the hotel, in a corridor, and I was talking with Ayala, Canizares and Pellegrino, maybe Aimar, and I told them we would win the league," Benitez said.
"They thought I was crazy. But I remember Canizares saying after we'd finished eight points ahead of Real that 'Rafa had told us we would in January'. The way we trained was key."
Benitez's core style was – and is – about repetition, about players learning positional discipline.
Chelsea's interim coach has already conducted a session out here in specific preparation for Leeds United in a high-octane League Cup tie on Wednesday.
"With the way we train here, I have confidence we will be better and better every single week."
So much better that the title is possible, Benitez claimed.
"When I talk to players here, I can see in their faces they have the belief. If we win here and we play like we played against Monterrey (in the semi-final of the Club World Cup), with the quality we have going forward and the right balance in defence, the team can win three or four games in a row easily and the confidence can be so high.''
He was looking far afield and not simply from the sumptuous vantage-point of the 70th floor of Chelsea's hotel.
Benitez was sitting in the team's meal-room, a five-star eyrie so high up that your ears popped as the lift tore towards the skies. He was chatty, occasionally feisty, delivering gentle punches to this observer's shoulder and moving water bottles and a salt-pot around as he explained tactical tweaks to Chelsea's back-line.
The invitation was designed for Benitez to become better acquainted with the knot of reporters who had travelled across the world to see if Chelsea could become champions of it.
Benitez is on a charm offensive, partly to win friends for a club battered with image issues but also because he wants to be mentioned in glowing dispatches when major jobs become available next summer.
The Spaniard does not boast many friends amongst his managerial peers in England and had such a reputation for not celebrating golden moments that his captain in Istanbul, Steven Gerrard, told him to have a beer and unwind at Liverpool's 2005 Champions League victory party.
Benitez famously greeted the jubilant Gerrard with a question about his first-half marking.
So, it was important to look beyond the ready smile yesterday, to understand that this is a man with a point to prove to Alex Ferguson, to Jose Mourinho, to some former players and the majority of a quizzical media.
Benitez is the outstanding outsider and the charm on the surface could not conceal a certain chippiness.
A two-time winner of La Liga with unfashionable Valencia, Benitez craved proper recognition. "Look at the (his) CV," he demanded, "and then analyse the CVs of other managers who people think are amazing in England and you
think: 'What is going on here?' Analyse it. I have the confidence in myself for years.
"When I was 11, I was playing football in Madrid, winning championships between schools in Madrid, and I was captain. I was taking notes at 13, analysing football.
"I was at the Real Madrid academy and got injured, but I'd been playing with the likes of Vicente Del Bosque and I wasn't scared of any of them. I knew where I should make the run, the pass, the movement.
"At Valencia, we were improving, learning and winning. Talk with Mista, my centre-forward. We were promoted with Tenerife when there was Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Betis in the same division and Tenerife went up with no money and terrific football.
"Extremadura, a very small village, were promoted into the First Division.
"My degree is in physical education. I was a teacher in a school for three years and in a gym for five. You have to explain, repeat, teach. Against Monterrey, we had a penetrating pass for Ashley Cole on the left in the second half. John Obi Mikel and Cesar Azpilicueta had another one on the other side. That was part of our training.''
For all the Chelsea fans' non-negotiable antipathy towards a former Liverpool manager who once castigated them, Benitez is undeniably having an impact on their club.
And bury ghosts. Benitez still confronts memories of discomforting events in the 2008-09 season when his Liverpool team chased Ferguson's United but finished four points adrift. He's still not moved on.
"They scored in the last minute against Aston Villa,'' Benitez recalled of Federico Macheda's late winner for United on April 5, 2009.
He's neither forgotten a controversial spot-kick nor forgiven Howard Webb for a game-changing incident at Old Trafford 20 days later.
"United were 2-0 down and then they got that penalty,'' reflected Benitez of Michael Carrick's suspect tumble. "I remember,'' he sighed. How Benitez would love some title nirvana.
Benitez is confident enough about the impression he is making at Chelsea to hint that Pep Guardiola or any other manager will find him a hard act to follow. The Spaniard has faced intense hostility from fans since he accepted the manager's job an interim basis last month, with supporters in Japan for the Club World Cup even giving him a hard time, but the team's form has already improved after a slow start.
Benitez now hopes the critics will be made to eat their words, providing the upward trend continues. "After the improvement of the team," he said. "The way I will play (and) the style I will have, I think a lot of fans will say, 'Maybe we were too hard and we have to give him the chance to bring the confidence back to the team and the fans'." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Corinthians v Chelsea,
Live, tomorrow, BBC2, 10.30am