Rafa Benitez admitted that a winning run of three games had reduced the mutinous atmosphere at Stamford Bridge and the abuse directed at the manager himself, as Chelsea moved into third place in the Premier League ahead of Tottenham Hotspur with a 2-1 win over Sunderland.
The voluble hostility towards Benitez from the home fans has diminished considerably to the extent that yesterday even the 16th minute chant for Roberto Di Matteo ebbed away quickly. While Benitez accepts that he will never win over the Chelsea fans between now and the end of the season he claimed that the change in atmosphere at Stamford Bridge had helped.
Benitez said: “You can say it’s important to have everyone sticking together and pushing in the same direction. That’s clear.
“I try to concentrate on my job. I do the same, but obviously people are asking me and the feeling is everybody has realised we have to stick together and support the team. That was my message before, and that is still my message now.”
He added: “It [the atmosphere] is always important. When you have a great game, it’s the atmosphere. The best nights here are with great atmosphere. It’s always very positive.
The Chelsea manager moved Fernando Torres, Frank Lampard and John Terry to the bench from Thursday’s Europa League side, with the latter not playing any part in the game. However, an injury to Demba Ba, hurt in a challenge by Craig Gardner, for which the Sunderland midfielder was booked, means that Chelsea could yet again find themselves short of strikers.
Ba was replaced at half-time by Torres, who played a part in Chelsea’s equaliser, an own goal by Matthew Kilgallon. Benitez said: “When you change at half-time, it’s not fine. It’s too early. A problem with his [Ba’s] ankle. We’ll see. The tackle was a heavy tackle, but we don’t know.”
Should Chelsea reach the final of the FA Cup and the Europa League they may have to play four games in the space of seven days between 5 and 11 May and it is unlikely, Benitez conceded, that his team would be able to secure a top four Champions League place before then.
“I don’t think that will be possible because Spurs and Arsenal are still there pushing, Everton as well,” he said. “We have to continue to the end. Hopefully we can do well in the cup competitions and be ready for Fulham and Liverpool. We cannot say it will be done [before the end of the season]. They will push anyway.”
The winning goal came from Branislav Ivanovic after Cesar Azpilicueta’s own goal had given Sunderland the lead just before half-time. “I was really pleased with the team,” Benitez said. “The first half, we didn’t start well. We were giving the ball away easily, conceded a late goal. Strange, but a very good reaction.
“Fernando made an impact quickly and the team were much better, on top of them, scored two goals and had control of the game. We didn’t score the third and gave them hope, so we had to defend, but after playing four games in eight days I’m really pleased.
“Too many games, short time, short period, it’s important to keep the team winning and ready, everybody on their toes. You have to be able to play anyone. We’ll have another four games in the next week, so we cannot stop. We have to get results and keep the right mentality.”
Chelsea play Rubin Kazan in Moscow on Thursday night, the second leg of the quarter-final tie that they lead 3-1 from the home game at Stamford Bridge. They play Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday followed by Fulham at Craven Cottage three days later.