LONDON (AFP) – Rafael Benitez’s hopes of winning over the Chelsea supporters face a stern test when his new side take on champions Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Chelsea fans have not universally welcomed Benitez’s appointment as Roberto Di Matteo’s interim successor, after the frequent spats that accompanied clashes between Benitez’s Liverpool and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
The Spaniard’s response has been to confidently declare he will gain acceptance through success on the pitch and there is no doubt victory over the reigning Premier League champions would be a step in the right direction.
Benitez has been appointed until the end of the season but has talked of impressing the Chelsea hierarchy sufficiently to convince them to shelve any plans of pursuing former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who has also been linked with a move to City.
And the new manager has already received first-hand experience of dealing with the kind of off-field issues that have become a feature of life at Stamford Bridge in recent years.
The announcement by the Football Association that referee Mark Clattenburg had been cleared of racially abusing Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel threatened to overshadow the new manager’s first media briefing on Friday.
Mikel is now facing a charge relating to his behaviour after the 3-2 home defeat by Manchester United, but is available for the visit of City.
Benitez must tighten up a defence that has looked shaky without John Terry — missing again with a knee injury — and, perhaps more dauntingly, attempt to coax striker Fernando Torres back into the form he showed when they worked together at Liverpool.
The manager insists, though, that only minor tweaks are needed to a side that lost 3-0 at Juventus this week — a result that triggered Di Matteo’s departure and seriously undermined their hopes of progressing in the Champions League.
Describing his first meeting with his players, Benitez said: “We didn’t talk about the Champions League or the next game but about little things I saw and we could improve a bit, and things they were doing well, which Roberto Di Matteo was doing.
“It’s a good squad, a good team. If I’m here, it’s because I think we can win with them. If we can improve by training hard, we will.”
The events at Chelsea this week have helped deflect some of the attention away from City’s failure to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for the second successive season.
Manager Roberto Mancini knows his expensively-assembled side must respond to their European demise with a positive result at Stamford Bridge to appease fans restless at the club’s lack of progress against the continent’s best teams.
Mancini is clearly frustrated at City’s abrupt Champions League exit and was annoyed by the comments of Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, who had claimed City’s struggles were “not normal” for a big team.
The City manager spent part of his pre-match press conference on Friday discussing Mourinho.
“Mourinho is not my chairman, he is not my owner,” said Mancini. “What Mourinho said is for me not interesting.
“Mourinho wants to talk about everything, but for me it is not important.”
Mancini also praised City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak for his patience, in a week that saw Di Matteo fired six months after masterminding Chelsea’s Champions League triumph.
“I don’t know (Chelsea owner Roman) Abramovich, I don’t know that situation,” added the Italian.
“All I can say is that I am happy to work with my owners and my chairman. They are good men, they understand the situation. They know it is impossible to win every game.
“When we lose they are disappointed like me, like the players.”