Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole are set to sever their long and glittering association with Chelsea at the end of the season after Rafael Benítez marked his first full day in interim charge of the club by confirming the break-up of the European Cup-winning team will continue in the summer.
Benítez has been employed on a short-term contract and he stressed others in the Chelsea hierarchy deal with contract negotiations. But after spending time with the technical director, Michael Emenalo, in the build-up to his appointment and having dined with Roman Abramovich on Thursday evening he is under the impression neither Cole nor Lampard will be retained when their contracts expire.
The previous manager, Roberto Di Matteo, urged the board to do all they could to retain both senior players' services only last week, though the reality that no progress has been made in negotiations always appeared telling. Cole had been offered a one-year deal in preliminary talks but is seeking longer terms having been targeted by Paris Saint-Germain while Lampard, who joined in 2001 and is the club's third-highest goalscorer, has not been offered a deal. He has attracted interest from the Chinese club Guizhou Renhe and from teams in Major League Soccer, and both players can negotiate with foreign clubs in the new year.
Asked if he thought the players would leave in the summer, Benítez said: "I think so. I don't have all the information and it's not fair to tell me I'm only here for seven months and then expect me to have an influence at the club over the next two or three years, but I think that's the case at the moment." They would follow Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and José Bosingwa away from Stamford Bridge, that trio having left last summer, with Florent Malouda currently seeing out his contract in the reserves as the club continue to dismantle the team that defeated Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena in May.
Benítez will continue to consider both for selection, though Lampard is still suffering from a calf injury. The manager has spoken to all his playing squad since taking up the reins on Thursday – he oversaw his first full training session on Friday in preparation for Sunday's visit of Manchester City – and been reassured by those older members of the squad that there are no lingering issues from the combustible rivalry they endured with his Liverpool side from 2004-10. "I had a conversation with John Terry today and it was quite positive," said the Spaniard. "He knows: he's a winner, I'm a winner. It's simple."
Equally impressed has been Abramovich, who enjoyed a three-hour dinner with the ninth manager he has appointed in nine years before Benítez emerged from that first meeting of employer and employee convinced he will be able to pick his team without influence from above. "The priority of the owner was whether I'm a good manager, a good coach, if the players understand me and if we'll be a winning team," he said. "He was very clear with that and happy with the things I've said. My impression of him was he's a nice person. You can talk with him and he understands and he likes to see you have clear ideas.
"I've had quite a lot of different owners, presidents and chairmen in my 26 years in football and they all liked to talk about football and find out what was going on. If you have confidence in yourself and can explain yourself, everyone can understand. But after the owners [Tom Hicks and George Gillett] we had at Anfield – they didn't love each other – this will be easier. I know who the person is in charge."
While the hierarchy seem buoyed by his arrival, the Chelsea supporters will take longer to come to terms with Benítez's appointment, with rival managers having also expressed some surprise. Sir Alex Ferguson wasted little time reigniting his long-running feud with the Spaniard by suggesting he was "lucky" to have been parachuted in by the European champions with the chance to claim the World Club Championships in Japan, as he did at Internazionale after succeeding José Mourinho, three weeks away.
"He could have two world club titles to his name, and had nothing to do with the teams," said the Manchester United manager.
Benítez rolled his eyes at Ferguson's words. "I've missed training the players and improving my team, even if the other things are part of football now," he said. "I like to talk about football but, if people push you… well, if you want to win, maybe you have to push back. I have to defend my team, my club. I like to respect people but sometimes I cannot because they push me. When I came to England I knew the other managers, and Arsène Wenger, who had been [at Arsenal] for a while, was the best manager here. But I cannot talk about these things every day. So I concentrate on my team and Manchester City on Sunday."
Fernando Torres will start that fixture, with his compatriot convinced he can squeeze form from the £50m British record signing. "I don't need to talk too much to Fernando because he knows me and what I'm looking for," he said. "My idea isn't just to improve Fernando but the whole team. I can't just focus on him. But when I look at him I see a player with commitment and a desire to improve, just as I do when I look at the others."
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