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Dec 24, 2012

Benitez eyes Chelsea return to title race

Rafa Benitez says he is hopeful that Chelsea will be back in the race for the Premier League at the turn of the year.

• Blog: Luiz re-invented in rout

The Blues are currently 11 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester United, although they have a game in hand due to their recent trip to Japan for the FIFA World Club Cup.

After Sunday's 8-0 mauling of Aston Villa, Chelsea will play Norwich, Everton and Queens Park Rangers between now and January 2, by which time Benitez hopes his team will be closer to the the Manchester clubs at the top of the table.

When asked if he will tell his players they can still win the league, Benitez said: "We will see after two or three more games. You could see the team had confidence in themselves, they believed, and that was there to the end.

"They had good movements, created chances. Now we have to sustain this run and it will be easier for me to say we can compete."

Benitez's appointment as interim manager in the wake of Roberto Di Matteo's sacking in November was met with opposition by many of the club's fans, but Benitez has praised the efforts of the players since his arrival.

"The players were really focused from day one,'' Benitez said. "They knew they had a new manager and they had to perform. The players, from day one, were trying to learn, to improve and they were keen to learn."

Chelsea's defeat to Corinthians in the Club World Cup final has not helped Benitez win over his detractors, but one positive in his short tenure thus far appears to be the redeployment of central defender David Luiz in midfield. The Brazilian scored a fine free-kick in the win over Villa which capped off an eye-catching display, and Benitez has not ruled out the prospect of the 25-year-old playing further up the field on a more regular basis.

"We will analyse it carefully," he said. "Maybe, if he can relax, he can play more games in this position because it's easier for him to rest here."

Chelsea defender Gary Cahill also believes Benitez is starting to 'win people over' after the Villa performance, which added to their five-goal haul in the Capital One Cup against Leeds a few days before.

It added up to the perfect response from the much-maligned Benitez, with Cahill claiming the influence of the new Chelsea manager is starting to reap rewards.

"There won't be one of our fans watching who didn't enjoy our display and hopefully we can continue and I am sure we will win people over with performances like that," he told the Chelsea website. "We needed a reaction from losing the final in Japan which was a big blow for us, and it shows the character in the team that we came back with hardly any rest and got the good result at Leeds and then again on Sunday.

"We showed what we are capable of and it is just a matter of consistency now. We have a lot of young players but on a day like Sunday you can really see the quality in the squad. If we play like that we won't go far wrong."

Chelsea will look to continue their stunning scoring form when they travel to Norwich on Wednesday, with the England defending expecting a tougher test from Chris Hughton's men that they were given by Villa.

"We showed what we are capable of and it is just a matter of consistency now," he added. "We have a lot of young players but on a day like Sunday you can really see the quality in the squad. Norwich away is always a tough game and we found that when we went there last year," he added. "No doubt it will be similar but we go into the match with great confidence.

"Sunday was a day when everything came together for us. Without being disrespectful to Aston Villa, it is a rare scoreline and you feel a bit sorry for them but at the same time, we had to do a job and we have shown what we can do.

"The positive thing was we didn't sit back when we had scored two or three. We kept going until the 90th minute and we got our rewards for that and that will give us confidence leading in to the Norwich game."

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