Sunday 15 December 2019

Benitez claims Roman Abramovich is ‘really pleased’ with Chelsea’s progress

Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez. Photo: Getty Images
Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Kelso

ROMAN Abramovich is "really pleased" with progress at Chelsea, according to Rafa Benitez, the man hired to ensure the club do not drop out of the race for Champions League places.

Abramovich returned to the UK last week after his habitual Caribbean break and did not hesitate to check in with Rafael Benítez 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 Benítez he did not let the interim manager know it.

“Without giving too many details, he was really pleased with the game,” Benítez said. “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.”

Benítez 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 Capital One Cup final.

Abramovich has much on his mind, not least who to appoint as full-time manager and Benítez 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 one — the World Club — was on his 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 Benítez’s slightly skittish mood.

He has been accommodating and open with the media since his return in November, but yesterday found him in more reticent mood. “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.

Benítez 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 Benítez 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.”

Benítez’s opposite number at Swansea, Michael Laudrup, experienced a number of semi-finals in his time as a player at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Ajax. So he knows precisely what to say to his Swansea players ahead of the second leg tonight at the Liberty Stadium. And it does not involve geeing them up.

“None of them have ever played in a final before, it is a big step but they can see it,” he says. “So I’ll turn it round and tell them to take it easy. Do your best and see if that is good enough. There’s no need to motivate them. They are motivated enough. Actually, I will need to relax them.” Even with his side sitting on a 2-0 lead earned at Stamford Bridge, however, he is loathe to describe them as favourites to progress to the final.

“This is Chelsea, perhaps the best team away from home in the Premier League. They can score three goals in 15 minutes. The other day they could have scored four or five times against Arsenal. Arsenal, not Swansea. We played Arsenal the other day and they were very good against us and then three days later they were not even existing against Chelsea. So it will not be easy. I would like to tell my players to imagine it is still 0-0. But I am not sure they will be able to do that.” Where he believes he might have advantage is in the difference in expectation between the two clubs.

“When they pay 30, 40, 50 million for a player they don’t do so because he is a nice boy. They do it because they want trophies. Here, nobody expects trophies. That is the difference. But I know what it will mean to everyone here to get to the final. Not for me. I have done it. But for everyone involved with the club. We want to win it for them.”

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