Rafa Benitez, the Chelsea interim manager, has revealed he has held a series of crisis meetings with technical director Michael Emenalo and senior players including John Terry and Frank Lampard in an attempt to revive the club's stuttering season.
Chelsea travel to the Madejski Stadium to face Reading after rescuing a 2-2 draw in Sunday's FA Cup fourth-round tie with League One side Brentford. That sub-standard performance led captain Terry, who made his first start since November following a knee injury, to implore his team-mates to "liven up" or face not qualifying for the Champions League next season in an interview with the club's in-house television channel.
More than 2,500 Chelsea supporters have already started an online petition to demand the removal of Benitez before the end of the season, with speculation mounting that owner Roman Abramovich is already considering Everton's David Moyes as his replacement. The Spaniard, who has recorded 10 wins from his 19 matches in charge since being appointed to replace Roberto Di Matteo until the end of the season, looked weary at his pre-match press conference as he batted away questions about his future.
Yet despite admitting he has held discussions with Emenalo after the Brentford match, Benitez insisted that he is confident he still has the full support of his players. "My position is exactly the same. All I can say is what I know: I have had meetings. We talk about football, normal conversations, with Michael and it's clear for me the priority is the top four and progressing as much as we can in the other competitions," he said.
"We still have the FA Cup and the Europa League, and we can still do the top four. Today I was talking with one or two senior players, explaining and agreeing the way we are doing things is right or if we have to change this or that. We are working with the players every day, and they're happy. They are quite happy. We cannot control the perception from outside, but I can influence the players, explain things and analyse things. They know the way to change things in football is winning. We were winning nine days ago. We have to start doing that again."
Ross Turnbull, the substitute goalkeeper, will continue to deputise for the injured Petr Cech at Reading while Chelsea consider a move for young England prospect Jack Butland of Birmingham City. Yossi Benayoun could also be in line for a surprise return after spending the first half of the season on loan at West Ham United as the absence of Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel at the African Cup of Nations has stretched the Chelsea squad in recent weeks.
In his role as interim manager, Benitez has no control over player signings at Chelsea but, perhaps mindful of recriminations from above, he refused to criticise the way the club is run and suggested there has been no decision over his long-term future.
"I cannot talk too much about my views on the system and structure of the club. I have to concentrate on my job," he said. "I was 20 years in Spain and Italy, and I concentrated on football. That's it. It's something I have experience for. I will do my best. And I will do my best until the last day in June."
Odds Reading 13-2 Draw 7-2 Chelsea 1-2
Kick-off 8pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.35pm)
Referee M Halsey (Hertfordshire)Reuse content