at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – Chelsea boss Rafa Benitez insists he has already succeeded in one of his main tasks since being given the job of managing Roman Abramovich’s team until the end of the season – rekindling the fire in Fernando Torres.
The Spanish striker struggled for form after his £50million move from Liverpool but he has been rejuvenated under his former manager.
Benitez, appointed by Abramovich as interim manager partly to get the brooding Torres to justify his price tag, says confidence, self-belief and a changing role have contributed to the resurgence of a player who had looked set for a January move.
“It’s the little things that make the difference,” said Benitez. “I know Fernando is playing a lot of games but he has more confidence now and is scoring goals.
“We’ve told him to go high around the box rather than go too deep when we are in possession, because we have players like Hazard and Oscar who can work behind him.
“Fernando understands and is trying to do that. He’s a player who can run behind defenders – all he has to do is what he is used to doing. He was always trying hard. Maybe now he is trying hard in the right position.”
Benitez is in the unfamiliar position of being unable to plan for the future, having been guaranteed only seven months in the manager’s seat until club owner Abramovich decides on his full-time replacement for the sacked Roberto di Matteo.
But the Spaniard gave the broadest hint yet that Torres will be joined by another striker in January, with Daniel Sturridge seemingly on his way to Liverpool in an expected £12m move.
Atletico Madrid’s Colombian hot-shot Radamel Falcao, who tore Chelsea apart in the pre-season Super Cup and is regarded as the best forward in Europe after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, is believed to be a shoo-in at Stamford Bridge. But not, Benitez is at pains to stress, to the detriment of Torres.
“Fernando knows that in a top side if you want to compete and challenge for all trophies, you need competition,” said Benitez. “It will be important to have different options. It will be better for him and better for the team. The problem in January is always who is available.”
The transformation of Torres, who scored 65 goals in 102 league appearances at Liverpool, is in his demeanour as well as his boots. “When you talk to him at the end of training, you can see that he has his confidence back,” said Benitez. “He’s getting closer to how he was at Liverpool, that’s clear.”
What is less clear is whether Abramovich will be prepared to splash as much cash – Falcao will cost almost as much as Torres – without the cushion of Champions League revenue. “People will remind us for sure in February that they are in the Champions League and we are in the Europa League but you have to win the tournament you are in,” said Benitez. “It’s important for us to send out the right message.”
He will also have to seek permission from the Chelsea hierarchy to arrange the recall of on-loan striker Romelu Lukaku from West Bromwich. Benitez sees Lukaku, 19, as a viable understudy for Torres.
The 6ft 3in Belgian was signed by Chelsea for £18m in 2011 but started only four games last season before being loaned out. He has impressed this season, and yesterday he showed why he could be Chelsea’s next Didier Drogba with a dramatic late winner – his sixth goal so far this term – as Albion beat Norwich 2-1. West Bromwich boss Steve Clarke said: “Romelu’s a big talent and has a big future in the game.”
Benitez insists morale has not dropped as a result of Chelsea becoming the first Champions League holders to bow out at the group stage, before losing the Club World Championship final in Japan. Having used the word “trophies” repeatedly when succeeding Di Matteo, he has to take the lesser cup competitions seriously.
But will the likes of Falcao be prepared to join without the glamour of Champions League exposure? “It’s not only about the Champions League,” Benitez claims. “Top-class players do not look for a top club just for one season. I know that the club will try to do the best for the team, not just for the present but for the future. What this means in terms of money, I’m not sure.”
As they prepare to host improving Aston Villa today at the start of a frantic holiday programme, Benitez is mindful of how the rest of Europe is winding down.
While he does not advocate a winter break, he thinks the fixture list should at least be curtailed, saying: “I can understand the tradition but why four games in 10 days and taking a risk on players? Why not two?”
In theory, this should be the last time he has to deal with such mid-season congestion. Unless, that is, his short-term deal turns into a more lengthy tenure in West London. Could it happen?
“In life there are no guarantees,” says Benitez. “My ambition is to win every game, do well and wait and see what happens.” – Mail On Sunday