United can wait says Rafa Benitez as Chelsea’s focus turns to Europa clash with Steaua
RAFAEL BENITEZ insists Chelsea's priority is simply winning their next game.
And that is why his immediate focus falls on tomorrow's Europa League clash at Steaua Bucharest, rather than Sunday's FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United or securing a top-four finish in the Barclays Premier League.
Chief executive Ron Gourlay, speaking on a promotional visit to Asia ahead of the forthcoming pre-season tour, reiterated a place in next season's Champions League is the over-riding concern this term.
For Benitez the priority is the next obstacle, but the Spaniard hopes the Blues have numerous hurdles to overcome in the closing weeks of the season as he seeks to fulfil his brief of a top-four finish before his contract as interim boss ends in May.
"We will try to progress in every competition and the next game is the most important game," Benitez said.
"Now we are here, to play in the Europa League, we will try to win.
"On Sunday we'll be at Old Trafford and afterwards we'll concentrate on West Ham, or whatever.
"We know that all the competitions are important and if we can finish in the top four, everybody will be happy."
Tomorrow's fixture at the National Arena in Romania's capital will be the 50th competitive match of a season which began with Chelsea in contention for seven trophies; the Europa League is the unexpected eighth for the winners of last season's Champions League.
The Blues' elimination from the Champions League prompted Benitez's appointment as successor to Roberto Di Matteo and the Spaniard faces a key eight-day period, with the last-16 matches with Steaua falling either side of Sunday's FA Cup last-eight clash at Manchester United.
With United coasting to the Premier League title, for Chelsea the Europa League and FA Cup represent the only remaining chances of silverware this term.
Benitez hopes the fixture calendar remains a busy one and he is now confident he has the squad to cope.
"We know we have played a lot of games and still we want to play a lot of them until the end of the season," he said.
"That is the way of a top side when you play in so many competitions - you have to manage your squad. We have a good group of players and we can choose one or another one.
"If we do it properly, I don't think fatigue will be a problem."
Given the proximity of the Old Trafford clash, where the Blues hope to win to continue their bid to defend the FA Cup, team selection will be intriguing tomorrow.
Fernando Torres is set to start up front, with Demba Ba ineligible having represented Newcastle earlier in the competition, while another of Benitez's former Liverpool players, midfielder Yossi Benayoun, is available again following an ankle injury.
Like Ba, Victor Moses and Ramires did not travel with the squad.
Captain John Terry did and may start in central defence, but he could yet be a substitute once more.
Given Terry's fitness travails following his knee injury, selection in Romania might suggest the former England captain will not play on Sunday.
If the small-sided warm-up skirmishes which the team embarked upon early in training at the National Arena are any indication, Terry will start, with Ashley Cole rested and Ryan Bertrand at left-back.
"As a manager you have to think about both (matches), but the priority is this one," Benitez said. "We'll try to put a very competitive team on the pitch and be sure that we can do a good job tomorrow.
"After we will think about United, but the main thing for us is to progress in this competition."
Gourlay made headlines earlier this week when, again speaking in Asia, he was quoted as saying the club were in talks with midfielder Frank Lampard over a contract extension.
The Blues swiftly moved to state Gourlay had been misquoted and there would be no public comment on whether discussions were taking place.
Despite the uncertainty over his future after 12 years at Stamford Bridge, Lampard has moved on to 199 Chelsea goals this season and will seek his double century tomorrow.
Benitez said: "He's a good professional, he's focused, he's concentrated. I'm really pleased with that."
Asked if winning the Europa League could provide a suitable finale for Lampard's Blues career, Benitez said: "If we can win I will be really pleased, but I don't know about the future.
"It's important just to concentrate on winning and then after we'll see what happens with the other things."
First Chelsea must overcome Steaua, last-32 conquerors of Ajax, with Benitez highlighting left-back Iasmin Latovlevici and right winger Adrian Popa as dangerous players.
"We know it's a good team, that they have good players," said Benitez, who gave a courteous response to his local audience when asked whether he would consider managing in Romania for his next job.
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