By Wayne Veysey at Stamford Bridge
The more Rafael Benitez claims that a top-four finish is his priority, the less convincing it is.
The Spaniard’s team selection spoke far louder than his post-match answers after an impressive Chelsea dumped Manchester United of the FA Cup at the second attempt.
However, the script was far more nuanced than that. Chelsea were good value for this quarter-final triumph, comprehensively outplaying their visitors following a dismal opening 30 minutes that justified Benitez’s pre-match warning not to expect a classic.
Thereafter, the game sprung to life. Slowly at first, in the form of some Eden Hazard-inspired attacks on David de Gea’s goal that only marginally gave Chelsea the first-half edge.
In the second period, their dominance was almost total, with the FA Cup holders creating chances at will and demonstrating a certain swagger to their play. By contrast, United’s re-jigged line-up lacked the composure to trouble a defence that lost Ashley Cole to a hamstring injury early in the piece.
The architect of this triumph was Juan Mata, the outstanding player on either side over the two legs and constructor of Demba Ba’s magnificently executed goal.
Yet Benitez provided ammunition for his army of blue-jerseyed critics by leaving Mata and five other regulars out of his starting line-up against Southampton on Saturday, which Chelsea duly lost 2-1.
Mata was too ill to travel with the squad to the south coast, but Cole, David Luiz, Ramires, Hazard and Ba, who all returned to the team against United, were not.
Benitez should not be pilloried for rotating. Sir Alex Ferguson is the biggest rotator of all and has long operated a ‘horses for courses’ policy, which, clearly, has worked a treat in the league this season.
The problem for the interim manager is defending the accusation that he has one eye on silverware at the expense of qualifying for a place in next season’s Champions League.
To most observers, Benitez picked his strongest available team against United (John Terry’s untouchable status has vanished, possibly for good). By contrast, Sir Alex appeared closer to doing so against Sunderland in the league, even though perhaps even the man himself does not know what his best XI actually is.
Well aware of the ramifications of his words, Benitez said what most supporters, and certainly Roman Abramovich, would have wanted to hear.
“The priority for us is to finish in the top four – we know,” he explained in his post-match press conference. “But we have to approach every competition trying to win. We had two games in less than 48 hours so had to manage the squad. We don't have too many players in some positions and we have to manage. I think we did it really well.
“It's not playing one game in three days like we have for months, it is two games in less than 48 hours. We can't kill players playing them two games in a row, because then they get injured and we lose them.
“Our squad is not too big but we can manage if we don't have injuries. The problem now is that Cahill will be out for another 15 days at least, and Ashley the same so we have to manage with the other players.”
Given Chelsea’s investment in attacking talent over the last two transfer windows, and the presence in the dugout of unused substitutes Terry and Frank Lampard, Benitez’s small squad claim does not ring entirely true.
Perhaps more telling is his observation that Chelsea can make up any lost ground in the league. “The race for the top four will be until the end of the season,” he said. “We're in the top four with a game in hand, we're in a very good position.”
Benitez’s Chelsea reign will ultimately be judged on whether he adds to the bulging trophy cabinet of the Abramovich era and provides his successor with Champions League football next season.
However the Spaniard deals with the congested calendar of the forthcoming weeks, one thing is abundantly clear: his ambitions are unlikely to be fulfilled without a stellar contribution from Mata.
Chelsea’s leading scorer this season – he has notched 18 in all competitions – is also their creator-in-chief, the most likely to unlock well-drilled defences.
Benitez will know the stats to heart, no doubt. Mata has already been involved in an incredible 50 Chelsea fixtures this season, 43 of which he has started. Even Cech has only played 48 games for the club.
If the magical No.10 stays fit, fresh and firing, Benitez could yet have the last laugh at Stamford Bridge.