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Dec 5, 2012

A temporary reprieve for Benitez

To listen to Rafa Benitez, you wouldn't think that he is a man either under pressure or almost completely unwanted.

As he almost jauntily walks into the Cobham media room, he has a massive smile spread across his face and jokes about the sheer yellowness of a rather garish training top. Then, when a journalist's phone rings, Benitez laughs that, if it's the wife, he should definitely take the call; that it wouldn't be worth the grief otherwise.

Many, of course, would say the exact same about the Chelsea job.

Throughout the pre-match formalities for the Champions League match against Nordsjaelland, though, there was a general feeling of rare freedom; of a temporary alleviation of all the recent anxiety. Even if Benitez's side win, after all, it may prove irrelevant in a near-impossible situation that he inherited. Few will be surprised at a mutually beneficial draw between Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus to eliminate Chelsea. Added to that, there is the perceived poverty of the opposition at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

That feeling starts to fade, however, when you consider the flip side. What happens, for example, if Shakhtar Donetsk actually do Chelsea a favour, but Benitez's side can't beat Nordsjaelland?

Because, even though Chelsea have only won two of their last 11 and not seen victory at all in the last six, another failure to claim three points in such a situation would suddenly see the Spaniard fully appropriate one of Roberto Di Matteo's problems. It would be a lot more difficult to point to the flaws of the previous regime if an opportunity like that was missed.

Even beyond saving their European season, there is the issue of re-igniting the entire campaign. In fact, with Nordsjaelland barely mentioned, it absolutely dominated a press conference that was supposed to be about the Champions League.

If not quite as drastic as the situation Harry Redknapp now faces at QPR, both the team and Benitez badly need that win to engender any kind of momentum. It was something that Juan Mata admitted before his manager arrived on Tuesday.

"We are trying to achieve our first victory [under Benitez] of course. We know that the most important that we need at this moment is to win."

In a roundabout way, Benitez echoed the same theme, while also providing a few explanations that bordered on excuses.

"I have to take responsibility, but I have been here for 10 days. I take the responsibility of the last five years, that's not the case. I know we have to perform, we have to win, we don't have too much time. I explained the other day, we have two training sessions [in between games]. How can you prepare the team? If you have the whole week, it's easier. In this case, it's not so easy. But, still, I am happy with the response of the players and then I will try and prepare the team for winning. That is the situation."

Despite that lack of training time, Mata says the squad have noticed a few changes.

"We are working in a different way. The training is different, always with the ball. That is the main difference. We are trying to change some tactical things."

Benitez, meanwhile, maintains that the little he has been able to do has had an effect.

"We are talking about players like David Luiz... it's amazing, the last two games, he was one of the best defenders. Why? Just to change one or two things and, maybe for him, it's fine. Maybe with another player we try and change one or two things.

"I think, if you analyse the three games [so far], there have been a lot of good things. The positive things in the first two games were the cleansheets. After 10 or 11 games conceding goals, it was good, a point to start building something. We concede goals against West Ham, but maybe it was the game we deserved to win more than the others because we were much better in the first half, had chances and could have scored two or three goals.

"If you just see the results, we have continued more or less the way we were doing in the last month; two draws and a defeat, more or less the same situation. But I think the positive thing is we are stronger in defence in the first two games. We were very strong in the first half [against West Ham]. So, a lot of positives, and still a lot of things we can do."

Such comments harked back to some of Benitez's more fanciful statements after defeats at Liverpool, when he would start to talk about 'control' of games. And, yesterday, that thread of argument reached a nadir when he spoke of Torres doing a "great job", scoring a lot in training and carrying out some "amazing" work at defensive corners.

All of that, though, points to the fundamental issue with the Chelsea team at the moment. As long as they go without a win or a credible run of form, Benitez can only point to esoteric and abstract positives.

That's why Wednesday is important for reasons beyond just staying in the Champions League. Even there, though, Benitez applies the same kind of thinking. He's looking to potential positives others would not pick out.

"I don't think it [would be] a miracle. I think we have to do our job and wait for the other teams. Shakhtar [Donetsk] is a very good team. Juventus is also a very good team. We have confidence that they can beat Juventus. That game, that depends on them. We have to win our game, so it is not a miracle. With hard work and sometimes a bit of luck, obviously we will try and do our job and see what happens.

"The only thing that I can try is to win our game. Still I have confidence that Shakhtar can beat Juventus. They have some good players, players that want to be seen around the world. They see it as a challenge. Everybody will be watching the game carefully so they see they have to perform."

Again, many will say the same about Benitez and Chelsea.

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