Rafael Benitez takes charge of his first European game as Chelsea manager tomorrow night, and he has urged his side to remain focused in a competition where minor details can make a big difference.
The Blues make our Europa League bow with a last 32 clash against Sparta Prague at the Generali Arena, with the Spaniard seeking inspiration from his time in charge at Valencia, when he won the competition in its previous form back in 2004.
‘I won the UEFA Cup with Valencia and got to the semis with Liverpool,’ he said. ‘In a knockout competition you have to concentrate really well as the little things can make a difference. That’s what I try to do and maybe that’s why I’ve been successful.
‘Sparta are a good team and they have had time to prepare for the match. It will be a massive game for them; they have quality and are good passers of the ball.
‘They recently signed the top scorer in the league [David Lafata] and it’s important for me to explain to my players that it will be a tough test.’
Much of the focus tomorrow night, and for as long as we remain in the competition, will be on Fernando Torres, with the 28-year-old our only available striker.
Demba Ba is unable to play in the Europa League having already represented Newcastle United in this season’s tournament, and while Benitez acknowledged it could, at some point, become a problem, for now at least, he is staying positive.
‘It’s a problem, but we’ll try to keep Fernando fit, playing well and hopefully scoring goals,’ said the Blues boss. ‘If we have to manage in a different way because we don’t have him for any reason, we will have to, but Victor Moses is coming back and he’s an option to play as a striker.
‘The perception is that Fernando hasn’t scored goals, but he already has 15. He was scoring at the beginning of the season and then again when I just arrived.
‘He hasn’t scored for a couple of games but he was playing as a lone striker for a long time. I said when we signed Demba Ba it would be good for him because if you rest one of them they can be fit for the next game, but I think he will start scoring goals again.’
With David Luiz missing the game through suspension, Benitez was handed a major boost when John Terry, who sat out the weekend win against Wigan Athletic, was deemed fit to travel.
The manager will be hoping the skipper’s presence – if he plays – will help restore some much-needed solidity to a backline which has failed to keep a clean sheet in a winning performance since the 4-0 victory at Stoke City early last month.
‘All the players that are here can play tomorrow,’ he explained. ‘We knew Terry had to adapt after the games, there was no reaction in his knee which was positive. Obviously you have to train and play matches, but it’s just a question of time so that he can reach his real level.
‘Our defensive record was quite good because we were conceding half the number of goals we had been before.
‘If you win 4-1, you may not have kept a clean sheet but you have scored four goals. We have a good record and I think we are the second best team in the Premier League in terms of clean sheets. It’s good, but it can be better, and we have to find the right balance.’
The last time we played in Prague, we emerged with a 1-0 win in the group stages of the Champions League back in 2003 courtesy of a William Gallas header.
Ten years later, the competition may have changed, the personnel may be slightly different, but much remains the same, with the Blues heading into a crucial game in need of a big performance.
Benitez, just like nine years ago, is once again looking to make his mark.
‘This is a massive city, a massive club and a massive competition,’ said the Spaniard. ‘You cannot change things, the Champions League is a big competition but so is this, and we now have the chance to play against historic teams and do well.’