Tuesday 20 February 2018

Benitez eyes silver lining to rocky reign

Rafael Benitez
Rafael Benitez

Ed Arrows

A fortnight ago, Rafael Benitez launched an extraordinary attack on Chelsea fans following the scrappy 2-0 win over Middlesbrough in the FA Cup.

After his substitutions and team talk sparked Sunday's impressive second-half comeback against Manchester United in the next round, the interim manager now clearly feels vindicated and was carefree enough yesterday to mock those fans who seem to blame him for every setback that affects the club.

Benitez goes into tonight's Europa League last-16 second-leg tie with Steaua Bucharest knowing that to overturn the 1-0 deficit from the first game will only add to the club's fixture pile-up.

"I can do nothing about that. I just concentrate on my job and try to do my best to prepare the team for every competition. Maybe somebody else will blame me. They will say it's my fault, because everything is my fault," Benitez joked.

"If something is wrong some people want to blame me. I have to manage this too. I will try to lead by example and concentrate on the next game. My job is to be sure that we compete in every competition." Soon after he had spoken, the English FA announced Chelsea's FA Cup quarter-final replay against United at Stamford Bridge will take place at 12.30 on Easter Monday.

But that comeback at Old Trafford has clearly lifted spirits among the Chelsea squad as they attempt to navigate a cluttered fixture list that Benitez hopes could still lead to two trophies and a top-four Premier League finish.

"It's important for us to have shown against a top side that we can do it," he said. "We can hopefully keep the momentum."

Benitez's enthusiasm at yesterday's press conference was not even dimmed by the realisation that the absence of cup-tied Demba Ba will mean Fernando Torres is expected to lead the line this evening. There seems to be a renewed optimism from Benitez that he can still salvage a positive outcome to his tempestuous spell at Chelsea.

Tonight he is up against a Steaua side who are runaway leaders in the Romanian First Division having failed to lift their domestic title since 2006.

The Steaua manager, Laurentiu Reghecampf, said last night he wanted to "annihilate" Chelsea and hope the Stamford Bridge crowd turn on the home side early in the game.

For once, though, Benitez will feel hopeful of a more favourable atmosphere at Stamford Bridge after midfielder John Obi Mikel this week became the first Chelsea player to admit the opposition to Benitez's appointment back in November has affected the team's performances at home.

Mikel urged supporters to get behind the team for the rest of the season and that view was echoed yesterday by Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta, who, like Mikel after the game, marvelled at Benitez's inspirational team talk on Sunday which sparked their revival.

"He said the things we needed to improve. We saw that we were doing some mistakes that were creating problems. He did some adjustments and also the mental thing, that was the most important for us. We had the confidence to come back. We could have won," Azpilicueta said. (© Independent News Service)

Chelsea v Steaua Bucharest,

Live, 3e/ UTV, 8.05

Irish Independent

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