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Benitez deflects criticism onto Di Canio

Rafa Benitez admits the controversy surrounding Paolo Di Canio's appointment as Sunderland boss has relieved him of some pressure in the public eye, although the Spaniard believes football should be the focus of pre-match hype ahead of Sunday's match between the two sides, not the managerial battle.

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Benitez's Chelsea tenure has been riddled with criticism from fans at Stamford Bridge, but Di Canio's introduction to the Premier League means the 52-year-old is no longer the most-maligned manager in the English top flight.

Di Canio will take charge of Sunderland for the first time on Sunday and Benitez was reluctant to comment on the Italian's political views, despite admitting it is a welcomed change to have the headlines focused on his opposing number.

"The attention is going to be all on him, so it will take a little bit of the attention off me for a change," Benitez said. "But I'' not worried about the attention on me, just about my team.

"We need to stay focused and not be watching the other bench. We are playing Sunderland, not the manager. I don't think the manager can make that much difference if they do not have the right players. It's not about the managers. We need to talk about players and goals.

"I'll tell you what I feel about the fascism row with Di Canio after the game. It depends how they play, then I will let you know my feelings. Hopefully we'll be able to talk about football, lots of chances and lots of goals and after, maybe, you can talk about Di Canio. But for me the main thing is my team and our football, not him."

Chelsea slipped to fifth place after Arsenal's win over West Brom on Saturday and Benitez will need to overcome a desperate Sunderland - who could fall into the drop zone with a defeat - if the Blues are to keep their hopes of Champions League qualification alive.

"It's always more difficult playing a team is trying to avoid relegation," Benitez added. "They will be focused and have more determination, particularly with the new manager, but I am confident in my team.

"It's also difficult now to know what he will do tactically. They will be a different team to the one we have watched so we need to concentrate. Three wins in a week would be a great achievement. We are playing some good football which means I am quite positive.

"We can't afford to lose any more games to stay in the top four but we have some hard games to to play. The good thing is we have a game in hand and if we win we'll be third. It is down to us whether we stay at the top."


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