Benitez keeps faith despite setback at Southampton
SOUTHAMPTON, United Kingdom (AFP) –
Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez remains confident his side will finish in the Premier League’s top four and deliver silverware to Stamford Bridge despite their unexpected 2-1 defeat at Southampton.
Saturday’s loss at St Mary’s allowed Tottenham Hotspur to move above Benitez’s side into third place, while fifth-place Arsenal‘s victory over Reading leaves them just two points adrift of the Blues.
With eight league games remaining — seven in the case of Tottenham — the battle to secure a place in the Champions League is set to intensify.
However, for Chelsea, attention immediately turned to Monday’s FA Cup sixth-round replay with Manchester United and the Europa League tie with Rubin Kazan, which precede a return to league action against Sunderland.
And while the demands of the fixture list will stretch Benitez’s squad to the limit — he rested several key players against Southampton — the interim manager insists they can deliver success.
“Three points would have made things easier, but we have a game in hand,” said Benitez.
“We have to carry on and concentrate on Monday, then think about Thursday (Rubin Kazan) and Sunderland at home. That is the way. You have to be ready for the next challenge.
“I have confidence we will finish in the top four and win one or two trophies.”
Southampton remain locked in a relegation battle, but they deserved the win.
Jay Rodriguez put Mauricio Pochettino’s side ahead in the 23rd minute and Rickie Lambert’s 35th-minute free-kick secured the win after John Terry had equalised with a header.
A second-half rally failed to bring Chelsea back into the game, but Benitez insisted he had no regrets about making wholesale changes with the United game in mind.
He said: “We had to manage the squad. We didn’t have many options, so we had to use the players we had to use.”
Benitez was again subjected to abusive chants from Chelsea supporters as his side struggled to find a way back into the game, prompting Pochettino to express support for his opposite number.
“I have sympathy for Rafa and recognise the job he’s done,” said the Southampton manager. “He’s one of the best managers in the world, and he has my respect for what he’s done in football.”
Southampton’s win came on the back of victory against Liverpool last time out and kept the south coast club four points clear of the relegation zone.
“Victories like that confirm we’re on the right path,” said Pochettino.
“It’s very important for the confidence of my players, and the people in the club, the technical staff. It’s important we can believe we can achieve results as we did today, and can do so in the future.”
Lambert’s fine goal highlighted the importance of the club’s leading scorer, who last week signed a contract that will keep him at Southampton until 2016.
“He’s a player I knew even before I arrived here, and we’re really proud of his performance on the pitch,” said Pochettino. “Off the pitch, he’s a really great person, too.”