Saturday’s trip to take on Southampton at St Mary’s marks the start of an eight-day period which will see the Blues play four matches across three different competitions.
The international break came at a time when we were beginning to find our form, after successive wins against Steaua Bucharest and West Ham United, and Rafael Benitez is hoping we can continue where we left off, starting down on the south coast.
On squad news
The biggest worry for any manager during an international break is that one or more of their players will go away and pick up an injury.
Fortunately for Benitez, particularly taking our impending fixture schedule into account, the Chelsea contingent who did travel have all returned free from any problems, although two players will need to prove their fitness over the next couple of days.
‘The players that were playing with their national teams are fine, [Gary] Cahill and Rami [Ramires] are working with the physios, but the rest of the squad are okay,’ explained the Spaniard.
‘We still have a couple of days, we will see, they had a special training session with the physios today, they could be available but it will be close.’
He also expressed his delight at the continued progress of John Terry after such a lengthy lay-off earlier in the season.
‘He’s been training with us and doing well so I’m very pleased with his evolution,’ said Benitez.
‘He’s training every day and improving his fitness. It’s just a question of how many games you can play, not just for John, but for everyone.
‘We will play four games in nine days, none of the players can play in all of those games and be 100 per cent fit’
On facing Southampton
Our last trip to St Mary’s, back in January, saw us progress to the fourth round of the FA Cup courtesy of a 5-1 win, but the Saints provided a far tougher test shortly after when they fought back from 2-0 down to secure a point in a Premier League game at Stamford Bridge.
Having replaced Nigel Adkins soon after that game, Mauricio Pocchetino has endured a mixed start to his time at the club, but Benitez is expecting a difficult game on Saturday.
‘He’s doing well, it’s not easy for a new manager,’ said the Blues boss. ‘They were doing a good job with Adkins and now they can keep that style and idea.
‘They were a difficult team to play against before and they will be again. All the teams involved in the relegation battle are working very hard. They have a good team, a good understanding of the game and they have some good players, so they have a chance.’
In other news
Meanwhile, Benitez has urged his side to embrace the upcoming sequence of fixtures, even if maintaining freshness within the squad proves to be difficult.
‘It’s better to have this problem than being at home watching the television, it shows you are progressing and competing,’ he explained.
‘We want to make sure we have a competitive team against Southampton, Manchester United and Rubin Kazan. We have to manage the squad carefully and try to find the right balance.
‘The most difficult time will be between the next two games because they are so close, so it will be hard to make sure we have fresh legs for the second game.’
With the battle to secure automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League gathering momentum, there is a natural tendency to keep an eye on the fortunes of those teams immediately behind us in the table.
Having watched his side turn in an impressive display against West Ham United just under a fortnight ago, however, the manager believes our sights should be set on overhauling Manchester City, who are currently four points ahead of us in second place.
‘In a top side, normally the last 10 games of the season, and the last months, are when you fight for trophies,’ said Benitez. ‘We are there so it’s positive, and it will be really important for us.
‘I would like to see us reduce the gap. The main thing is your own team. If we can do things like we were before, when we were training very well, competing and playing very good football, if we can keep that momentum I will not be worried about the other teams.
‘We know that to finish in the top places is the key for us for next season, we want to guarantee Champions League football, so hopefully that will be enough motivation for the players.’