Rafael Benítez has claimed his Chelsea players are united and fully behind their interim first-team manager despite the outpouring of frustration between coaching staff and squad in the wake of Sunday's damaging Premier League defeat at Manchester City.
The Spaniard acknowledged there had been an "exchange of opinions" with senior players before training on Monday after he gathered the group in a huddle to begin their assessment of the 2-0 loss at the Etihad Stadium. Such post-mortems are normal, but the intensity of the debate that ensued reflected the mounting exasperation within the set-up at the slack form that is jeopardising their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League. Chelsea have won only two of their past six league games and have slipped to fourth place, with Arsenal only two points adrift.
Benítez has stressed to his players the need to make immediate improvements, starting with Wednesday's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Middlesbrough, if they are to achieve their aims of a top-four finish and a potential trophy under his six-month stewardship. He suggested he retains their support and that they have bought into his methods.
"I can guarantee the players know what we're trying to do and believe in what we're trying to do, 100%," he said. "The players are fully behind our ideas. I can guarantee that. I and my staff have been working really hard to get the right balance and right team on the pitch. The players know how hard we are working. That's the main thing.
"I talk with them every day and they're really pleased with what we are doing and know what we're trying to do, every game. Today I was talking with three or four [before training], and two or three after, and they were all convinced we would finish in the top three. They are clever enough and realise they will be here beyond the summer, with long contracts, so they have to perform and be ready if they want to stay at the maximum level. By which I mean in the Champions League. But my relationship [with the senior players] is fantastic. I don't have any problems. Fantastic. The atmosphere is really good inside the club."
That was a bullish response to talk of a recurrence of the unrest within an experienced squad that had so served to undermine André Villas-Boas last season. The Portuguese, whose Tottenham Hotspur side leapfrogged their London rivals into third place on Monday, was dismissed a little under a year ago with players having failed to buy into, among other things, his intense approach on the training ground. That outlook contrasted markedly with the more relaxed nature of Roberto Di Matteo's subsequent period in charge, though Benítez feels he has had to instigate a regime somewhere between those two extremes because of the club's suffocating fixture schedule. The game on Teesside will be his 27th in charge in 97 days.
Benítez has had to juggle his squad as best he can, though the frank exchange of views at Cobham earlier this week did reflect anxiety that a side who finished sixth last season, despite winning the Champions League, are drifting out of contention for the top four once again. "It was a normal meeting between players and technical staff, as happens after every game," said Benítez when asked specifically about the incident on Monday. "You see it all over the world, after every game: you exchange opinions, especially after a defeat. The disappointment is normal. It was a normal meeting, a very brief exchange of ideas. Nothing else."
A few senior players did respond to the manager's complaints over the team's application and criticisms of their performance, with John Terry – an unused substitute at the Etihad – understood to have spoken in defence of the players. The centre-half has made only one Premier League start since mid-November due to knee trouble and, having suffered a set-back in his recovery towards the end of last year, has been used sparingly given the volume of games being played. He should return to the lineup against Middlesbrough with Gary Cahill and César Azpilicueta absent through illness and injury respectively.
"I can understand the frustration of Terry," said Benítez. "He's an important player for us who's trying to help and push because he wants to win, but he has been injured for 16 weeks and has had a few problems with his knee. He's missed some training sessions. To play [in the FA Cup fourth round] against Brentford he had a specific fitness plan and treatment that we'd prepared for him, but he couldn't manage because of the intensity of the sessions. So we are still managing him, but he finished the session yesterday and can play.
"Now, we concentrate on Middlesbrough. I know the targets. This team finished sixth last year, and now we have to fight to be in the top three. That is why I am here – to get us into that top three and do my best in every other competition. That is it. This is a good team with good players, and we know our target. We will see."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © etyek