Benitez knows who is up for the fight
Chelsea manager has a special way of telling which players are in the mood for Club World Cup final
He may be a veteran when it comes to preparing his teams for major finals, but Rafa Benitez still feels the tension rising as kick-off approaches. There are many things to fret over but the key, he says, is being able to tell which players to rely on, knowing who is up for the fight.
Sometimes he can see it in their eyes, or he can tell by the way they carry themselves in the warm-up. A place in history is at stake, careers can be made – or broken. Seeing is believing for the manager.
"Sometimes you know [who's ready]," said Benitez, on the eve of his third Club World Cup final.
"In my head I have an idea and have one or two doubts and maybe looking at them gives you that solution. But yes, in the dressing room looking at them, you do know. You think you know. You can see how they are.
"Always, after the warm-up, I ask my staff if they are sharp and paying attention to everything or distracted. Normally, or around 80 per cent of the time, you know, more or less."
There will always be that element of doubt and, if things do go wrong, as they did spectacularly in Istanbul in 2005, when Liverpool trailed the Champions' League final 3-0 to AC Milan after a first half of total domination by the Italians, the manager must fall back on his experience, his ability to adapt and change things. Benitez ticks that box, too.
By talking about that game during his Anfield tenure, after Chelsea had been eliminated in controversial circumstances in the semi-final, he is unlikely to help his stock rise among disgruntled fans. But it was probably the defining moment in his career and one he can be forgiven for reflecting upon.
"I was preparing the speech when it was 2-0 and then we conceded the third goal. I had the idea to change the shape of the team, preparing Didi Hamann," the Spaniard recalled. "The tactical issues were fine, my head was clear, but you have to give your speech, and in English, which was not good.
"I knew the players were down, with their heads down, so it was quite complicated but the message was simple: score one goal and we'll be back in the game. You have to fight for the game and nothing to lose now, you have 45 minutes to change things. Apart from the message, the key was the tactical change because Hamann gave us more control."
Not all these games have enjoyed fairytale endings: defeat in Athens two years later against the same opponents – after again dispatching Chelsea in the last four – came on the heels of a Carling Cup defeat in Cardiff – yes, against Chelsea.
The bad days still rankle, still bother a man driven to distraction by failure. His record in this competition reads one loss in 2005 – hotly disputed, when Liverpool were on the end of some poor decisions by a Mexican referee before going down to Sao Paulo – and one win, two years ago with Inter Milan against the Africans TP Mazembe. "I'm really upset when I lose a game but especially a game like that in a massive competition," he added.
Thursday's serene progress against Monterrey hasn't made the build-up to today's showpiece any less fraught. "It's not a case of not sleeping, but all the time when you are alone, you are thinking, thinking, about what you are going to do," said Benitez, who was so preoccupied he forgot to pass on a good-luck message from injured skipper John Terry. "It could be that someone has a problem in the morning. It's an important game, you want to get things right."
Late yesterday he was mulling over whether to start with Frank Lampard – who will captain the side if he does – or keep David Luiz in midfield, where he was a revelation against the Mexicans. Corinthians will present a greater challenge. "They have good players… Emerson, Paulinho, Cassio in goal and Paolo Guerrero, players who can make the difference. Hopefully we will keep them quiet."
Branislav Ivanovic, who will shoulder some of the responsibility of doing just that, sees this as "a key game for this generation, one of the most important games for all of us. Now we have to play the final and it will be tough. It's the defensive things which decide big games so we have to be ready. I expect a very hard game. That's good for a player. You have to find yourself."
The defender appreciates Benitez's attention to detail. "We've prepared by studying a lot of moments and clips," he said. "We watched Corinthians in the semi so we know it's going to be difficult and how they defend and play well. A final is a completely different game. Small things can decide it. We have to be focused from the first minute to the last one, but the team will be ready for this."
One look into their eyes could be enough to tell if they are.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole; Mikel, Luiz; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres.
Corinthians (4-2-3-1): Cassio; Alessandro, Chicao, Paulo Andre, Fabio Santos; Ralf, Paulinho; Douglas, Danilo, Emerson; Guerrero.
Referee Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)
Bottom line for boys from Brazil
Before travelling to Japan, Corinthians fans were issued with warnings by the Brazilian government in the form of picture cards outlining some of the cultural differences they might encounter. One advised them to refrain from feeling women's backsides on trains.
After experiencing the Thursday-Sunday match routine in Japan, perhaps the Europa League won't be such a shock to Chelsea's system.
Sao Paulo has the largest settlement of Japanese outside Japan, and their popularity was enhanced last year when they played with a Japanese message on their shirts which read: "Go Japan" to show support after the earthquake and tsunami.
Brazilian clubs have two wins out of two against English sides in the Club World Cup. Vasco da Gama beat Manchester United 3-1 in the group round in 2000, and Sao Paulo overcame Liverpool 1-0 in the 2005 final.
Fifa are expecting a 70,000 full house at Yokohama's Nissan Stadium, despite the fact that Japan goes to the polls today for a General Election.
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