Rafael Benitez believes that his tenure as Chelsea interim manager has set them up for a stronger title challenge next season. Benitez will take charge of his last competitive game after six turbulent but successful months, with third place in the Premier League in their sights and the Europa League trophy secured on Wednesday.
Benitez will almost certainly be succeeded by Jose Mourinho this summer and the Spaniard is confident that he has left his old rival with a much stronger squad than the one he inherited from Roberto Di Matteo.
“For sure it’s a stronger team,” Benitez said. “The players have been improving and have more experience. This is a team in transition with new players – Oscar, Mata, Hazard, Marin, Moses – who are improving and learning and now have experience of competing for trophies, which is important in a top side. Azpilicueta is now an international, David Luiz plays a different position. So I think the team will be much better. The new manager will have an easier task because he will have more quality and more experience.”
Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo’s predecessor at Stamford Bridge, predicted that Chelsea would be the team to beat next season. When asked if Chelsea could challenge for the league for the first time since 2010, Benitez was confident.
“It depends on the other teams at the same time,” he said. “These players are getting older which may not help all of them. Some of the young players, we said before, they have the talent and they will have more experience. They have time and will be even better. Oscar, Hazard and Mata – you talk about the three amigos – are getting better every day. With some additions I’m sure the team will be even better.”
Chelsea were in a downward spiral when Benitez took over, having won once in eight games but he has changed the fitness and conditioning work to make them fitter. Fernando Torres, working with Paco de Miguel, his old fitness coach from Liverpool, has been the most obvious beneficiary while Luiz has gone from a raw talent to one of the most complete players in the Premier League.
“We have seen a very clear improvement,” said Benitez. “Fernando, particularly in the last games, is stronger and more confident and is doing well. David Luiz is consistent in different positions, done a lot of good things. The key thing is that I could trust him, to do this or that, he has always been keen to do it. ”
Benitez’s final league game is against Everton at home, and a victory would ensure third place and qualification for the Champions League group stage next year. Despite his unpopularity with some fans, Benitez could look back on his time at Chelsea with some pride.
“There are a lot of good memories,” he said. “To win the final of the Europa League was the best, in some games we played attractive football, we scored 145 goals which is the record in the history of the club. It was a good decision to come here.”
Asked whether he would give his successor any advice, Benitez demurred: “Maybe the next manager will have some experience here, too.”
* Race for the Champions League
Arsenal will guarantee fourth place if they beat Newcastle at St James’. If they lose or draw, Spurs must beat Sunderland at home to secure fourth. If Chelsea draw 0-0 and Arsenal win 2-1, they will be level overall and would meet in a play-off to decide third.