Quick links



Rafael Benítez juggling act floors Chelsea's hopes at Southampton

When Rafael Benítez mentions "a fact" in that measured yet clipped fashion of his, and Sir Alex Ferguson is on the agenda, it serves to remind his audience, almost at a stroke, of the deep animosity between the pair.

Chelsea's interim manager had plenty on his mind on Saturday evening, not least the manner in which his carefully calibrated selection had come unstuck with angst-inducing consequences. "In losing this game we've brought everybody back into the fight for the top four," said the goalkeeper Petr Cech, lamenting the deflation of Chelsea's little cushion.

But if Ferguson's spectre had loomed large over Benítez before this trip to the south coast, it positively growled in the aftermath. The Scot and his Manchester United champions-elect are coming to Stamford Bridge for Monday's FA Cup quarter-final replay, and Benítez was stretched between picking over where it had all gone wrong against an impressive Southampton and how he could put it right for a duel of mouthwatering great significance.

The 15th meeting between Benítez and Ferguson has been framed by the rancour that was evident in the original tie at Old Trafford. This being English football, it was manifested in handshakes, or the lack of them, with Benítez pointedly maintaining that it was Ferguson who snubbed him before the match. "The local manager will look for the away manager and try and shake his hand," Benítez said. "But if you look at the DVD from that first game, you can see a fact: a photographer talking with him. You will see who was right. But I will go anyway and try and shake his hand."

Benítez has long suspected that Ferguson and United enjoy undue political clout within the English game – the sentiment was part of his infamous "facts" press conference in January 2009 – and he was asked once again about Ferguson's power and its reach. "It's a good question," Benítez replied, "… but I will not give you the answer. I just concentrate on doing my best on Monday and trying to win. The other things you can see. You are journalists and you can say what you want."

As is sometimes the case with Benítez, what he left unsaid practically screamed between the lines. There is tension there and it was heightened by more than Chelsea being played off the pitch for 45 minutes and being unable to extricate themselves in the second half.

Rickie Lambert's belting free-kick further advanced his England claim but he was not the only eye-catching Saint. Nathaniel Clyne, Jack Cork and Jay Rodriguez were outstanding. It seems ridiculous on this form to write Southampton and relegation fears in the same sentence.

The thought flickered that Benítez had prioritised the United tie by omitting key players and these decisions were motivated, in part, by the burning desire to settle a score with Ferguson and also to gild his departure with a trophy. The club's hierarchy have made it plain that Champions League qualification is the priority, and so has Benítez. The apparent change of tack was controversial but Benítez's arguments bore scrutiny.

Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Eden Hazard and Demba Ba, who were named among the substitutes, had exerted themselves during the international break and the manager could turn to fresher alternatives. Ramires, another substitute, had been carrying a groin problem while Gary Cahill was injured and Juan Mata ill. The Southampton game was not quite do-or- die and Benítez's line-up appeared to have enough to get a result.

The bottom line, as Benítez suggested, could be located in squad depth. Ferguson could rest key players and still win comfortably at Sunderland while Benítez could not. The Spaniard might also have highlighted the difference between confident Southampton and hapless Sunderland.

"The reason United are top of the table is because they have a very strong squad," Benítez said. "Just analyse the four strikers they have and we only have two. We have offensive players with enough quality to create but, in some positions, to find the balance and play so many games, it's not easy. Chelsea are also a team in transition, with a new manager and new players."

Benítez said Chelsea could beat anybody on their day. Victory over United, he added, would galvanise the club. But he and his players have hardly put their best foot forward.

Man of the match Jay Rodriguez (Southampton)

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by David Hytner at St Mary's, for The Guardian on Sunday 31st March 2013 23.01 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © thesportreview

FIFA World Cup 2018FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia - click here for all of our coverage...

Register for CHELSEA team updates

Register for HITC Sport - Daily Dispatch