Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez under fire as Blues in danger of missing out on Champions League
THE pressure is mounting on Rafael Benítez after his gamble in making seven changes to his Chelsea side backfired spectacularly as they slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Southampton that raised fears over their chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
With seven games in 19 days, including ties in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at home to Manchester United on Monday and in the Europa League against Rubin Kazan on Thursday, Chelsea’s interim manager fielded what could be regarded as a largely second string line-up at St Mary’s.
But the Chelsea hierarchy are adamant Benítez’s target this season is not winning a trophy but guaranteeing a top-four finish and qualification for Europe’s premier club competition. With Tottenham Hotspur winning, and leapfrogging Chelsea into third place, and fifth-placed Arsenal closing the gap to two points behind them, Benítez’s approach will come under scrutiny.
Only two of Benítez’s changes were enforced and it did appear he rested players ahead of Monday’s tie against United, who beat Sunderland to maintain their 15-point lead at the top of the table.
Sir Alex Ferguson was also able to make changes and there is the prospect that Rio Ferdinand could face John Terry for the first time since the latter was cleared in court of racially abusing Ferdinand’s brother Anton, although he was later punished by the Football Association.
It is unlikely Ferdinand will refuse to shake Terry’s hand, although it remains to be seen whether the latter, who started against Southampton, plays, even though Gary Cahill is a doubt. It is hoped that Juan Mata, who was absent with a virus, will return.
Benítez insisted the crowded fixture list dictated that he had to make changes. “We had to manage the squad,” he said. “We didn’t have too many options in some positions, so we had to use the players that we had.”
Although there is sympathy at Chelsea over the fixture pile-up, there will be irritation at Benítez’s complaints about the strength of his squad, especially as he is acutely aware that where the club finishes in the Premier League is the priority.
Benítez has been critical of his side’s fixture list, complaining that just 48 hours’ recovery time before the United match was insufficient. “We cannot change anything,” he said. “We just have to play the games and manage the squad. I think they have to think about this in the future but it’s something I cannot change.”
Chelsea do have a game in hand over Spurs, who also have to travel to Stamford Bridge, but there is little margin for error. Asked whether he thought his selection gamble had damaged Chelsea’s Champions League aspirations, Benítez said: “It’s the same situation. With three more points it would be easier but we still have one game in hand. We have to be ready for the next challenge.”
On Saturday, United beat Sunderland 1-0 with Ferguson afterwards stating his team now needed four more victories - in reality 10 points would suffice - from their remaining eight league matches to claim a 20th league title and 13th under the Scot.
United also set a new record with a 25th win from 20 league matches and are also aiming to beat Chelsea’s record league-winning total of 95 points.
“I think the players have galvanised themselves - the team spirit, the concentration, the focus in every game,” Ferguson said.