Rafael Benitez warned only top-four finish will suffice at Chelsea
RAFAEL Benítez has been told to prioritise securing a place in next season’s Champions League in the remainder of the season after impressing on Chelsea’s high command the extent of fatigue in the squad he inherited.
Benítez has held meetings in the past 10 days with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and most recently with director of football Michael Emenalo, who is responsible for the club’s recruitment policy and a key adviser to the owner.
In his talks with Emenalo at Chelsea’s Cobham training base Benítez has stressed that the rigours of Chelsea’s season – they have played 40 games already – has taken its toll on a squad he believes lacks alternatives beyond the core of first-team players.
He will rely on his most influential players, led by Juan Mata, when Chelsea travel to Reading on Wednesday night for a game he knows they must win to recapture momentum in their league campaign.
But with an FA Cup replay against Brentford to come and the Europa League campaign starting on Feb 14, the Spaniard is having to marshal his resources to get the best from a squad still acclimatising to his methods.
With Petr Cech and David Luiz injured and out of the Reading game, Jon Obi Mikel and Victor Moses at the Africa Cup of Nations, Eden Hazard banned for at least two more games, Oscar still acclimatising to English football and Fernando Torres and Demba Ba both fragile, Benítez says his argument has substance.
“We are playing a game every three days, more than anyone, and we have some problems with players in the Africa Cup of Nation, we went to Japan for the Club World Cup. Some will say that’s excuses. But it’s not. It’s a reality.”
Responsibility for the shortcomings may lie with Emenalo, who signed many of the squad, but Benitez’s case has been acknowledged by the club hierarchy, who after another swirl of speculation about the Spaniard’s future this week, have left him in no doubt where the priority lies for Abramovich.
“All I can say is what I know: I have had meetings with Emenalo. We were talking about the situation and it’s clear for me the priority is the top four and progressing as much as we can in the other competitions,” Benítez said.
“We still have the FA Cup and the Europa League, and we can still do the top four. We talk about football, normal conversations, with Michael.”
Yossi Benayoun will continue his return to the first-team squad at Reading but there are unlikely to be any additions before the transfer window.
Chelsea have made a £3million bid for Birmingham City goalkeeper Jack Butland, but the player is thought to be doubtful about the wisdom of moving to a club where he is not guaranteed to even make the bench. Liverpool and Fulham are also interested.
Benítez has found an ally in John Terry, who called on the players to “liven up” in the pursuit of Champions League football after the dispiriting 2-2 draw at Brentford.
“We need to liven up a bit and realise the importance to the fans and the club. Champions League football is a must next season.
“We saw last season, going to the Champions League final, suffering with all the extra games and stuff like that, we ended up finishing sixth in the League. It’s difficult but we have a squad and it’s down to the players who come in to rotate and play well.”
“We have another game we could do without but we should beat them [Brentford] at the Bridge. I was disappointed because we didn’t fight and they wanted it more.”
- Paul Kelso and John Percy, Telegraph.co.uk