Rafael Benítez says Chelsea's 'great season' could get even better

Rafael Benítez has claimed Chelsea have already enjoyed a "great season" after the reigning European champions, who slipped to fourth in the Premier League at the weekend, knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup to secure a semi-final against Manchester City.

The interim manager will have defensive concerns before that match at Wembley on 14 April, with his England internationals Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole unlikely to play any part in the cluttered schedule of the next two weeks.

Chelsea will have top-flight and Europa League matches to play in the interim, with Rubin Kazan due at Stamford Bridge on Thursday and the return leg only three days before the semi-final, and yet Benítez claimed the campaign to date should already be considered a success.

"We had a turning point two weeks ago [against West Ham] and then, after one game, it seemed everything had changed," said Benítez, referring to the reaction to Saturday's untimely defeat at Southampton that jeopardised their pursuit of a top-four finish. "But it's the same. The race for the top four will go until the end of the season. We're in the top four with a game in hand [on Tottenham Hotspur]. We're in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the quarter-finals of the Europa League. It's a great season. It could be even better.

"My priority is the top four and trying to win the next game, in the Europa League, against Rubin Kazan. We know the priority has to be the top four but as a top side you have to try to win every competition. The problem we had between these two games was that we had less than 48 hours between them, and we don't have the biggest squad. We don't need to justify [the selection last Saturday]. We had to manage those we had. You cannot kill players by making them play two games in a row all in that time."

The assertion that Chelsea have already enjoyed a "great" campaign may perplex the team's supporters, given the side are 22 points adrift of Manchester United and now compete in Uefa's secondary club competition. Yet Benítez will continue to juggle his resources in the hope of winning trophies and a place in the top four from the games that remain. He made six changes to the line-up beaten 2-1 at St Mary's and was able to savour an industrious performance capped by Demba Ba's sublime volleyed winner four minutes into the second half and a staggering save from Petr Cech to deny Javier Hernández an equaliser.

Their pursuit of a fifth FA Cup in seven years remains on course, even if the loss of Cahill and Cole represents a blow. The centre-half, who had initially been hopeful of playing for England in Montenegro last week, has suffered a setback in his recovery from the knee injury sustained against West Ham. Cole limped off midway through the first half on Monday after damaging a hamstring while chasing Danny Welbeck.

"He'll be missing for at least two weeks which, for us, means 20 games," Benítez said. "Cahill will be out for another 15 days at least, probably two or three weeks, so we'll have to manage the players we have. Our squad is not that big but, if we don't have more injuries, we'll be fine [with the pursuit on three fronts]. We'll have to approach it all carefully."

United, whose centre-half Rio Ferdinand was booed throughout by the home support, are set to secure the title in the weeks to come, with the derby against the holders due on Monday. Wayne Rooney is expected to be fit to face City, having missed the Cup game with a groin injury picked up on England duty last week.

Sir Alex Ferguson shook hands with Benítez before and after the game, despite the fractious relationship the pair have had in English football over the past nine years.

The United manager was left frustrated by his team's performance. "To be honest with you, I thought we were too rushed in that second half," he said. "We just lacked a bit of composure to create the proper openings.

"Robin [van Persie] had a couple of headers and another chance he really should have scored but he put it over the bar. But it was disappointing because we are better than that.

"We didn't play as well as we should have done. It was disappointing but we have to forget all about it and move on to the game against City next Monday. We are in a good position and I think a positive result for us on Monday will just about seal the title.

"The players are down because they know they can do better – only Antonio Valencia reached the standard we expect of them – but we will kick on."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dominic Fifield at Stamford Bridge, for The Guardian on Monday 1st April 2013 18.39 Europe/London

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