Rafa Benitez insists he has the Chelsea players behind him, although some of his predecessors might advise him it’s better to have them somewhere you can see them.
‘Fantastic,’ smiled Benitez, when asked to rate his relationship with players who challenged him during a team huddle before a training session on Monday.
The interim manager tried to shrug off the row as a ‘very brief exchange of ideas’, clouded by the ‘disappointment’ of Sunday’s defeat at Manchester City.
‘The players are fully behind our ideas,’ he added, but as Chelsea head to Middlesbrough for tonight’s FA Cup fifth-round tie, there is an ominous feeling around the camp.
This established Stamford Bridge stars have seen plenty of managers come and go. They have even given some a nudge towards the exit.
Benitez was only ever an interim appointment and Sportsmail’s report of finger-pointing and blame-shifting after a sixth defeat in three months at the helm suggests tensions are bubbling to the surface.
They always do when Chelsea’s Champions League status comes into question and the 2-0 defeat at City, coupled with wins for Arsenal and Tottenham, has quickly eroded the glow of three wins against modest opposition.
Saturday’s home match against West Bromwich in the Barclays Premier League is far more important for Benitez than tonight’s FA Cup tie, and he will select his team accordingly.
Gary Cahill misses out with a virus and Cesar Azpilicueta is injured, which ought to mean a return to the defence for John Terry, who was among those most vocal in support of his team-mates as players locked horns with Benitez.
‘I can understand the frustration of Terry, an important player who is trying to help and push because he wants to win,’ said Benitez. ‘But he has had problems with his knee.
‘Sometimes he hasn’t been able to finish the sessions because of the intensity but he’s getting fitter with every session. We see after every game how he feels. Still, he has to keep training and doing those sessions and he can do better.’
Despite the fact he would love to lift the FA Cup for a fourth time, it will not be lost on Terry that he was omitted from the Manchester City game, a high-priority fixture for Benitez, and is back for the cup tie at Middlesbrough.
It seems increasingly unlikely, however, that the Spanish manager will stay when his interim period expires in May but he still expects players to strive for the top four.
‘I don’t want to talk about what can happen in the future,’ said Benitez. ‘I will be working hard until the end. The players know how hard we are working, that’s the main thing.
‘They are clever enough to realise they will be here with long contracts so they have to perform and be ready if they want to stay at the maximum level. For example, in the Champions League.’
Benitez has sent out a clear message since he replaced Roberto Di Matteo: he does not think this squad has enough quality or depth to compete on all fronts.
‘This team finished sixth last year, we have to fight now for the top three,’ he said, overlooking the fact that Eden Hazard, Oscar and Demba Ba have been notable additions to the squad.
However, Benitez said: ‘I can guarantee the players know what we’re trying to do and believe in it 100 per cent.’
Boro’s promotion campaign has faltered in the past month as they have fallen from second to seventh in the Championship table.
Manager Tony Mowbray, a club legend and former Boro captain, has been singled out by unhappy supporters who do not fancy the prospect of another year out of the Barclays Premier League — which they left following relegation in 2009.
Tonight Mowbray is without key defender Jonathan Woodgate, who has a calf injury. – Daily Mail