Benitez & Chelsea back to reality with season hanging in the balance

The Blues' defeat to Corinthians in the Club World Cup final has abruptly halted any momentum they may have gathered, leaving them under real pressure for the festive period
By Chris Myson

If there are eight trophies to play for, one match is rarely going to determine the success or failure of a whole season.

When Rafael Benitez took over from Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea, the Community Shield was a distant memory, the Uefa Super Cup had been lost to Radamel Falcao and progression in the Champions League was already out of his hands.

The Club World Cup, though, was his first chance to secure silverware and Sunday’s desperately disappointing defeat to Corinthians in the final has left him with an uphill struggle to salvage the Blues’ campaign.

As Chelsea return to London from their long and unsuccessful trip to Japan, they have the Premier League, Europa League, FA Cup and Capital One Cup still to play for.

Although that means a strong and trophy-laden season is still a possibility, it is not what they had hoped for and Benitez arguably returns from the Far East with more problems than he left with.

Read our match report as Chelsea suffer a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Corinthians in the Club World Cup final
The trip to play in the Club World Cup was billed as an opportunity for real progress. Analysts said it could allow time for the fans’ strength of feeling against the Spaniard to subside, for him to spend some much-needed time with the players and to restore some confidence on the pitch by winning a trophy.

Ultimately, the semi-final victory over Monterrey proved a false dawn as familiar frustrations from this season returned for the 1-0 loss to Corinthians in Yokohama.

Leaving Oscar out of the starting XI and only bringing him on in the latter stages has been questioned and Fernando Torres failing to produce again in a big game appears to have cancelled out his own personal progress of the last fortnight.

Now, Benitez has little time to continue his adaptation to the Blues hot-seat, nor is there an opportunity for his key players to be eased back into trophy-winning form following their return to England.

The pressure is on immediately and results during the upcoming festive period are likely to be make-or-break for their hopes of achieving any kind of notable success by the time we are into the business end of the 2012-13 campaign.

On Wednesday, they face a tough trip to Elland Road to face Leeds United in the Capital One Cup quarter-final. It is a tie that will not have the glitz and glamour of their game on Sunday but one that now takes on an increased importance.

7/1 Chelsea are 7/1 to beat Leeds 2-1 in the Capital One Cup with bet365
With Bradford City, Aston Villa and Swansea City the sides waiting in the last four, Benitez will have missed another golden opportunity for silverware if his side cannot recover from their defeat in the Club World Cup by going on to secure that trophy at Wembley in February.

In terms of the Premier League, while Chelsea’s trip to Japan was initially seen as a welcome distraction, it has allowed the two Manchester clubs to pull away at the top of the table.

United’s lead over the European champions – and we can still call them that for now – has been stretched to 13 points, while Tottenham have closed up behind them in fourth place.

Games against Aston Villa, Norwich, Everton and QPR may look winnable on paper, but all four of those sides are in good form going into the festive rush of fixtures.

A positive points return from those matches could re-ignite a title challenge. Dropped points, though, would see the club involved in a battle just to get back into the Champions League for next season.

The January transfer window will undoubtedly be vital for Chelsea and Benitez too. A lack of striking competition for the toiling Torres, whose continued struggles have to be one of the interim manager’s biggest concerns, has stood out all season as an area of the pitch that needs attention.

After the injury to Oriol Romeu, though, central midfield is also looking rather bare. With John Obi Mikel going to the Africa Cup of Nations, it leaves just Ramires, Frank Lampard and the versatile David Luiz as options, none of whom have holding as part of their natural attributes on the pitch.

A poor run of results now or an unsatisfactory transfer window will mean Chelsea’s season has reached a point where it can no longer be salvaged to a respectable level.

After their latest disappointment, Benitez must identify what has gone wrong and pick his players up immediately for the vital and busy run of matches they have on their return to domestic action.

If he can achieve that, there remains a chance that Chelsea could still be celebrating some kind of success this season. A turnaround like that is easier said than done, though, and at this stage it appears he has everything to do.

Follow Chris Myson on