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  • Juan Mata 87'

Rafa readies Blues for final furlong

John Brewin
Rafa Benitez has already secured one notable success against Sir Alex Ferguson this season

This is no time for Chelsea to bask in the glory of their second European final in two years. Rafa Benitez has not even had time to touch up his Curriculum Vitae. Thoughts of Amsterdam must be shelved for a trip to Manchester as another battlefront is addressed. After that comes Wednesday's visit of Spurs as Chelsea battle it out with their fellow Londoners for a Champions League berth.

Sir Alex Ferguson, while making a knowing jibe at Benitez's job prospects, found time on Friday to praise the job his one-time enemy has done. It is easy to lavish praise when you have completed your own mission for the season.

"You can't dispute the fact he has done a good job in the last few weeks," he said, and that is about as cordial as it gets between the pair. Ferguson will be mindful of the fact that Benitez has had the better of him already this season.

In the days that followed Benitez's outburst at Middlesbrough against fans and ownership alike, few could have believed he could retain his employment until the end of the season. It was at Old Trafford that such a perception began to be altered. Manchester United were two goals up in the FA Cup sixth round, but playing very loosely.

From half-time, Chelsea dominated United, levelling the scores and only denied the chance to win the match by a wondrous David de Gea save. The revival was inspired by decisive tactical switches from Benitez, and the replay was duly won on a chilly Easter Monday lunchtime.

Their celebrations were separate, of course, but this was perhaps the time that Benitez and Chelsea began to look like a decent fit, however temporary the arrangement might be. The Blues have not lost a home game since January 9; the rebellious atmosphere of his early weeks in charge has been rather nullified.

Benitez spent Thursday night hearing his predecessor and probable successor being sung to the Stamford Bridge rafters. Jose Mourinho is flavour of the month again. Even though he is yet to arrive, and at the time of writing was playing down his expected return, it is already about him.

If Benitez walks away from Chelsea with the Europa League trophy and a Champions League place to his name, then he will have left a man who apparently refers to him as "The Fat One" with a decent legacy to build from. Mourinho might - and probably will - point to his leaving Benitez a Treble-winning team at Internazionale.

There might be the possibility that Mourinho only returns to Chelsea if they are in the Champions League, which places Benitez in the unfortunate position of feathering the nest of someone who has shown him open contempt. Still, there is that CV to buff up, and a visit to Old Trafford is likely to be easier when United no longer have much to play for.

Last week's draw at Arsenal left United unable to overtake the points tally of the Mourinho model's debut 2004-05 season. The Premier League is already theirs, and the next challenge seemingly lies in August. Yet Ferguson, who has promised Chelsea's rivals that his team will remain professional, has employed a stick-and-carrot approach.

Should his team lose on Sunday, the squad will be banned from their annual junket to Chester Racecourse, and its prestigious Chester Cup Day, the north-west's top flat race. It has been the scene of many a Manchester United beano down the years, and Ferguson, an avowed man of the turf himself, knows his players will not want to miss out next Wednesday. He'll be watching himself anyway.

"I've got two horses running, so if they win on Sunday, maybe I'll give them a couple of tips," he said on Friday.

The stakes may be higher for Benitez and Chelsea, but United's players will not want to gamble away the chance of another day basking in the spring sun.

Manchester United player to watch: David de Gea. When Clint Dempsey scored in the dying seconds at a snowbound White Hart Lane in January, De Gea was burned at the tabloid stake. This was the final straw, the proof that he had no future at Manchester United. Gary Neville joined the throng too in a lengthy TV montage. Four months on, De Gea is recognised as the best 'keeper in the Premier League. Perhaps it started with that save from Mata. His reputation is high, but a warning: Fabien Barthez was goalkeeper of the year at the end of 2000-01 season.

Chelsea player to watch: Fernando Torres. British and Irish sports fans are looking forward to this summer's rugby tour to Australia. Tradition dictates that the midweek team, who play the provincial games, are known as the "dirt-trackers"; Torres, all £50 million of him, has become, with Victor Moses, Chelsea's equivalent, with their fine run of Europa League goals. Torres is perhaps at his happiest yet at Chelsea and though he may only be an impact sub here, he will want to score on the scene of his best day in English football - for Liverpool in 2009 - and his worst - his horror miss for Chelsea in September 2011.

Key battle: Michael Carrick v David Luiz. Carrick is another player who has been lauded by his fellow professionals, and rightly so, after a season of high achievement in which he finally became Manchester United's main midfield man. Luiz, with a performance capped by a weaving, dipping wonder strike against Basel, suddenly looks a high-quality midfielder too. His mistakes are more forgivable there and his ability on the ball as well as his defensive class has made his conversion a notable success of the Rafa regime.

Trivia: The two have faced each other in the Premier League as champions before. At the end of the 1999-2000 season, an already-crowned United beat Chelsea 3-2 at Old Trafford. In the second to last game of that all-conquering 2004-05 campaign, Chelsea soundly won 3-1, coming back from an early Ruud van Nistelrooy strike via goals from Tiago, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Joe Cole.

Stats: Assuming three points for a win, no team in English top-flight history has ever finished outside the top four having won 65 or more points after 34 games (as Chelsea do now). (Opta)

Odds: United are 2.20 at bet365, the draw is 3.50, which is the same odds as a Chelsea win.

Prediction: A draw, meaning United get their day at the races, and that Chelsea need to beat Tottenham on Wednesday.

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