The frustration mounting within the Chelsea set-up at recent stuttering league form prompted a frank exchange of views prior to training on Monday as Rafael Benítez openly criticised his players' performance in defeat at Manchester City on Sunday, with senior members of the squad insisting the blame should not be pinned solely on them.
The 2-0 loss at the Etihad Stadium meant Benítez's side have won only two of their past six Premier League matches, with Tottenham Hotspur's late win at West Ham on Monday night meaning the European champions slip to fourth in the table. Their advantage over fifth-placed Arsenal has been trimmed to an uncomfortable two points ahead of Saturday's visit of West Bromwich Albion to Stamford Bridge.
The hierarchy has stressed to Benítez, whose interim stewardship expires in June, that his tenure will be judged on whether he can secure a return to the Champions League – and performances as sloppy as the one on Sunday are undermining that challenge. Chelsea were eclipsed in the first half and, though they survived, saw Frank Lampard's second- half penalty saved by Joe Hart before they eventually succumbed to goals from Yaya Touré and Carlos Tevez.
Benítez summoned his squad together prior to training on one of the pitches at Cobham and conducted his post-mortem on the loss at City, underlining his disappointment in the performance and questioning the team's application at points in the game. The Spaniard is well aware that the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Villas-Boas have lost their jobs at the club due to the players' perceived under-achievement and was dismayed at the display against the Premier League champions.
His speech is understood to have been geared primarily towards putting matters right for the League run-in and Wednesday's FA Cup fifth round tie at Middlesbrough. However, his words prompted a debate in front of the group with two or three senior players who were keen to point out the spine of the current team won the European Cup last season.
John Terry, who was again left on the bench at City having started only one league game since 11 November due to knee problems, is believed to have spoken up for the players, with talk quickly turning to ideas for tactical tweaks or changes to training that might eke more from the side. The squad subsequently trained as normal.
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image: © Jason Bagley