Saturday, May 18, 2013

Rafael Benítez says Chelsea can win title and hints at José Mourinho

Rafael Benitez believes he is handing over a squad capable of winning the Premier League title to Chelsea's next manager, with the Spaniard once again suggesting strongly that it will be José Mourinho who replaces him in the summer.

Benítez takes charge of Chelsea in a competitive match for what should be the last time on Sunday – he will remain as interim manager for the club's two friendlies against Manchester City in the United States later this month – and ahead of the visit of Everton the 53-year-old has reflected on his six-month tenure, one that has proved difficult due to the hostility he has encountered from a section of the supporters but which ends on a triumphant note following Wednesday's capture of the Europa League and Chelsea's all-but-certain qualification for the Champions League. They sit third ahead of the weekend's final round of league fixtures, two points in front of Arsenal in fourth and three of Tottenham in fifth.

"For sure it's a stronger team," said Benítez, who succeed Roberto Di Matteo at the club on 21 November. "The team was in transition with new players who have now improved and have experience of competing for trophies. César Azpilicueta is an international, David Luiz can play in a different position, Fernando Torres is stronger and more confident, and Oscar, [Eden] Hazard and [Juan] Mata are getting better every day.

"With some additions also the team will be better, so the new manager will have an easier task [of winning the title] because he will have more quality."

Mourinho is widely thought to be that new manager, with the Portuguese's return to Stamford Bridge expected to be confirmed shortly. Benítez intimated as much earlier this month and was at it again during his final press briefing at the club's Cobham base on Friday. Asked if he had any advice for his successor at Chelsea, the interim manager replied: "Maybe the next manager will have some experience here too, so I do not need to give him any advice."

Chelsea's victory over Benfica in the Europa League final appears to have softened the view of Benítez among the Stamford Bridge faithful, with some fans having sent messages of support and congratulations to the Spaniard since the match in Amsterdam. Many remain hostile to him, however, and that perhaps explains why Benítez was reluctant on Friday to confirm whether or not he would take part in Chelsea's end-of-season lap of honour following the game against Everton.

He instead insisted that he was solely focused on securing all three points, which would guarantee Chelsea automatic qualifying to the Champions League.

Should Chelsea draw and Arsenal beat Newcastle at St James' Park there remains the outside possibility of both London clubs finishing on the exact same number of points, goals scored and goals conceded. Should that occur, the Premier League has confirmed that the two sides will contest a third-place play-off match at Villa Park on Sunday 26 May, putting Chelsea's tour of the US in serious jeopardy given they are scheduled to take part in their first match against City, in St Louis, on Thursday, with the return in New York two days later.

"We have been working hard so it will be a pity if we cannot guarantee top three," Benítez said. "The players know how important it is [to win against Everton]. I am sure we will be fine."

Meanwhile, Chelsea's pursuit of the Germany winger André Schürrle from Bayer Leverkusen is on hold while the Bundesliga club seek to secure a replacement, with their first choice, Chelsea's Kevin De Bruyne, keen to join Borussia Dortmund instead.

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