Rafael Benitez insists a place in the top four is Chelsea’s priority this season.
The Spaniard succeeded Roberto Di Matteo as coach of the Blues back in November, by which time their defence of the UEFA Champions League was virtually over. Ensuring they are back in the tournament next season is imperative for the Londoners, who were only granted entry this term as holders after finishing a lowly sixth place in the Premier League at the end of last campaign.
Despite fierce competition from Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and even Everton to finish third and fourth behind the two Manchester clubs, Benitez fielded a weakened side for the trip to Southampton on Saturday and this contributed to a potentially damaging 2-1 defeat. This saw them drop to fourth place in the standings, just two points above the Gunners.
The reasoning for leaving key men Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Demba Ba out at St Mary’s was the FA Cup quarter-final replay date with Manchester United on Easter Monday. This led to fans accusing the former Liverpool coach, who has failed to win them over since his controversial appointment, of favouring the cup competitions over safeguarding their European future.
Benitez will stand down as boss of the Stamford Bridge outfit when his interim contract comes to an end in the summer, and if they are unable to offer Champions League football, they could struggle to secure the service of a top coach: such as, for example, Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho, who has been tipped to make an emotional return to the club he led to two Premier League titles.
But speaking after a Ba goal was enough to see off United and secure an FA Cup semi-final date with Manchester City, Benitez insisted that his priority remains a top-four finish.
“The priority is the top four, but we have to approach every competition trying to win,” he told the official club website. “We had two games in less than 48 hours so had to manage the squad. We don’t have too many players in some positions and we have to manage.
“I think we did it really well. The race for the top four will be until the end of the season. We’re in the top four with a game in hand, we’re in a very good position, the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the quarter-finals of the (UEFA) Europa League. I think it’s a great season at the moment.”
Whilst their drab win over United was welcomed at Stamford Bridge, it has done little to ease their congested calendar. The last four clash with City will take place at Wembley on 14 April, meaning their Premier League clash with Spurs will have to be rescheduled. They could also play another five matches in the Europa League if they reach the final, which will be played four days before their final match of the season against Everton, and four days after a potential FA Cup final.