Rafael Benitez insists he has improved Chelsea during his time in charge of the club, but still believes they are at least two players away from being a title-winning side.
When Roberto Di Matteo was controversially sacked by the Stamford Bridge club in November, they were already on the brink of exiting the UEFA Champions League after a torrid defence of the title they won in Munich six months previously. Benitez has managed to maintain their reputation in Europe, though, by leading them to a last four spot in the UEFA Europa League. And on Sunday afternoon, the Blues travel to Wembley to face City in the semi-final of the FA Cup, a competition his predecessor also won during his short spell in charge last season.
The Londoners were third in the Premier League table and just four points behind leaders Manchester City when they decided to issue Di Matteo with his P45, but under his successor, they are currently in fourth place and a staggering 19 points behind Manchester United in first spot.
Benitez, though, insists his side have improved under his leadership. And although he is hugely unlikely to be offered an extension to his interim contract which expires at the end of the season, the 52-year-old believes Chelsea are only two or three players away from making a sustained bid to wrestle the Premier League title from Manchester next term.
“I cannot take credit for signing these players because they were already here, some of them very good players, but some of them are young and they’ll be much better at the end of the season,” he said. “The balance of the team is better now. The players are quite happy, quite pleased with the way we train and the things we do and they are learning every day.
“I’m sure next year these players will be much better. They’ll have more experience, will have settled down in England. They’ve been growing, improving and learning. Next year, add two or three players, the team will be better. It’s a very good team but experience has cost us points in some games and maybe some trophies. If you sign two or three, they can challenge.”
Benitez will need to call upon the experienced players in his squad for what is a hectic last few weeks of the season for his team. After their FA Cup clash with City, they still have four more matches to play before the end of April, including successive away matches at Fulham and Liverpool before they jet out to Switzerland to take on FC Basle in the Europa League semi-final.
Swansea City visit Stamford Bridge on 27 April, five days before the second leg against the Swiss side which is followed by a trip to Old Trafford to face United three days later. An away match at Aston Villa and a home clash with Everton completes their league programme, but they may also have to negotiate finals in the FA Cup (11 May) and Europa League (15 May).