Chelsea has won the FA Cup in four of the last six seasons – a record of staggering, unprecedented success that, amid the turmoil and failure on more vaunted tournaments, has gone almost unnoticed. If Rafa Benitez wishes to graduate from being interim to permanent manager (an increasingly unlikely prospect), he shouldn’t trust the Cup. Winning the UEFA Cup with Valencia in 2004 helped cement Benitez’s reputation but such is the English arrogance towards the Europa League (as the UEFA Cup has become) that winning it alone probably wouldn’t be enough.
If Benitez is to stay he probably needs to win one of the two competitions Chelsea still has a chance of winning, have a decent run in the other, finish in the top four of the Premier League to secure Champions League football next season and do it by playing thrilling, aesthetically pleasing football – which is to say that it’s extremely unlikely.
Nonetheless, it’s all he and Chelsea have left to aim for, and the danger remains that he may not even see the season out. The club owner, Roman Abramovich, lost patience with Andre Villas-Boas last year when it became doubtful that Chelsea would finish in the top four (in fact, it didn’t, but qualified for the Champions League by winning it), and that probably remains the key metric. While progress in the Europa league – at this stage at least – probably doesn’t excite Chelsea fans too much, failure would be used as a stick with which to beat Benitez – and that’s why Thursday’s meeting with Sparta Prague takes on such importance.
Certainly Benitez has been trying to talk up its significance, admitting he needed to remind his players that it is a competition to be taken seriously. "In terms of flights and games it’s like the Champions League, in terms of mentality, the first thought is ‘hmm, it’s different’," he said. "But if you see the teams that are in the Europa League, you will see it could be quite difficult. They will realise it’s Europe and they can concentrate 100%. I’m expecting that they will be focused. We will have to start thinking of it as a great competition, with good teams and we will try to do our best.”
While the Champions League is at its last-16 stage, the Europa League is only at the last 32 but Benitez is adamant that a squad he has previously criticized as lacking in depth can cope with the potential two additional fixtures. "Two games a week we can manage, if we have enough bodies," he said. "Normally when you want to improve your team tactically, you push them. But in this situation you can’t because if you push them too much they will be tired. The balance is quite difficult.
"The day after a game you have a light training session. The second day is before the game, so you have a light training session. Then you have to play. That means when you try to do your tactical adjustments, your preparation, you cannot do too much."
Sparta Prague certainly will not be a pushover. It lies third in the Czech league but is undefeated since September and has signed the international forward David Lafata to try to overcome its problem of converting domination into goals, something that has led to it drawing a number of games it probably should have won.
"They are a team with a good blend of young, hungry players and experienced ones," said Chelsea’s keeper Petr Cech, who left Sparta for Rennes in 2002. "For them, it will be the biggest game of their careers, so that’s a danger because they will want to show they can do well against us."
Another keeper facing his former club is Hugo Lloris as his Tottenham Hotspur side face Lyon, the club from whom he joined Spurs in the summer, at White Hart Lane on Thursday.
"I received a lot of calls and a lot of messages [after the draw was made] because I have a lot of friends there still, and it is not easy for me because I have a good relationship with all my ex-teammates," Lloris said. "But that’s football, and on the pitch there are no friends. We play for our team and we give the best we can for the team. The competition is very difficult, it’s very long but we have a good team and we can do something in this competition."
The two other Premier League sides in action, Liverpool and Newcastle United, both face teams who have yet to start their season again after the winter break. Liverpool goes to Zenit St Petersburg, third in Russia, while Newcastle hosts Metalist Kharkiv, which is fourth in Ukraine and could only manage a 1-1 draw against Northern League first division (that is, seventh-tier) side Whitley Bay in a preparatory friendly on Sunday.