Rafael Benitez paid tribute to the attitude of his players ahead of tomorrow’s FIFA Club World Cup final against Corinthians in Yokohama.
The Spaniard, who took charge under difficult circumstances last month, has seen his side win three successive matches, including Thursday’s semi-final victory over Monterrey, and he believes there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as we bid to become world champions for the first time.
‘There are a lot of positive things,’ he said. ‘I’ve been impressed with their mentality, commitment and passion. In every training session you can see they are keen to learn.
‘This is all good for a manager when he is thinking about the future. We will try to keep the winning mentality, keep the hunger in the players and challenge for the trophy.
‘The secret for us is to work hard and do the right things. You make decisions, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but the key for any successful team is to work hard.’
Having watched his side cruise to a relatively comfortable 3-1 victory against the Mexican side, Benitez is expecting a far sterner test when we take on the Brazilians.
With the backing of an estimated 15-20,000 supporters inside the stadium, Corinthians will want to perform, and Benitez knows all about their qualities.
‘When we talk about Brazilian clubs I have to mention their very good quality,’ said the Chelsea manager. ‘They have a very good system, are well organised and know what to do.
‘Corinthians, unlike Sao Paulo, are very defensive, it will be difficult to create opportunities and the match will be very tough.
‘They have a lot of good players, not just Paulinho, I like Cassio, the goalkeeper. They are a team who are compact and they have players who can make a difference, so hopefully we can keep them quiet.
‘It’s hard to find faults, but let’s talk about how good they are after tomorrow’s match.’
The joy of last season’s Champions League triumph has been tempered in recent weeks by our disappointing defence of the trophy, which saw us eliminated at the group stages.
Benitez acknowledged the hurt within the group having failed to reach the knockout rounds, but he believes tomorrow night’s game represents the perfect opportunity to help the players bounce back.
‘Before the Monterrey match, I was a bit concerned that going out of the Champions League would have a negative impact,’ he explained.
‘It took a good few days, but we recovered from that shock. We weren’t able to move to the knockout rounds, but sometimes that happens.
‘It may motivate the squad because now we have an opportunity to win the Club World Cup and that’s very good for us.’
Frank Lampard’s return to action last weekend was a big plus for Benitez after a poor run of results in which the experienced players, such as the midfielder and captain John Terry, were sorely missed.
Much was made of the decision to start Lampard on the bench for Thursday’s win over Monterrey, but as Benitez explained, his long-term fitness remains the main priority.
‘The good thing about this team is that I can choose any player and they will perform and do well,’ said Benitez.
‘Frank is a very good player and we have different options. We still have one day, there is another training session and I will talk with my staff before I decide (on his starting line-up).
‘It was only his second game back from injury; I’m trying to get him more minutes, he will get more opportunities, he’s getting better but I need to consider his condition.’
For Benitez himself, tomorrow night’s game is a massive one. Having only taken charge a matter of weeks ago, securing a trophy so soon would send out a serious statement of intent.
He will become the first ever manager to take charge of three sides at a Club World Cup final, having previously led both Liverpool and Inter, and after two years out of the game, he is delighted to be back involved.
‘To have this opportunity is amazing,’ he explained. ‘It’s a very important competition. We know the Champions League is a bit different as you play 13 games and here it’s a short period, but to be here you have to be champions.
‘My priority is to win; if we can, we will see what the next step is. My job is to do as well as possible on the pitch, improve the team, and if we win trophies that will be even better’