Benitez, Chelsea eye late season push

For Rafael Benitez, there was vindication of a sort.

Faced with two games in less than 48 hours – and then Thursday’s Europa League quarterfinal against Rubin Kazan – he had picked a weakened team for the Barclays Premier League game away to Southampton and was roundly criticized after suffering a 2-1 defeat that leaves Chelsea two points clear of Arsenal in the race for Champions League qualification.

That defeat was bad enough but it would have been intolerable had Chelsea not then beaten Manchester United 1-0 to reach the FA Cup semifinal. Thanks to a superb goal from Demba Ba and a superb save from Petr Cech, the Blues will now face defending Premier League champs Manchester City at Wembley Stadium.

Benitez continues to insist a top four finish is his priority, and perhaps he is professional enough that it is. From a personal point of view, there is greater glory in prioritizing the FA Cup and then Europa League. While the club needs the revenue and the prestige of the Champions League, Benitez knows he will not be in charge next season. His resume would be enhanced by further silverware in a way that it would not be by a top-four finish and, missing out on a possible bonus payment aside, there would be few consequences for him personally in missing out. This, in a sense, is the natural consequence of Chelsea’s instability: eventually the goals of individuals and the club cease to be congruent.

The Spanish coach himself seemed irritated that the issue had been raised at all. “Before the international break we played United, West Ham and Steaua Bucharest and we were the best in the world,” he said. “We lost to Southampton and we were the worst in the world. Now we are the best in the world.

“Our priority is to finish in the top four but when you are a big club you have to approach every game looking to win.”

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that resting players – there were six changes between the lineups on Saturday and Monday – was the key to Chelsea’s replay victory but it always looked more dynamic than a Manchester United team that itself featured just four players who had started on Saturday. The John Obi Mikel-Ramires axis dominated midfield as it had in the second half at Old Trafford, while there was a strange lethargy to United. Its policy – as it often is away to Chelsea – was to sit deep and look to strike quickly on the break. Although Javier Hernandez forced Petr Cech awkwardly to hack the ball away with a raised right foot after deceiving him with a swerving shot, the effect was essentially to have the initiative to the home side.

It took advantage three minutes into the second half with Demba Ba charging onto Juan Mata’s dinked pass and hooking a shoulder high volley into the top corner – a quite stunning goal. United’s great strength in the past has been its ability to respond, its instinctive resilience, but here it seemed weary lacking in inspiration. United had their chance in the final half hour, most notably Hernandez’ header that Cech tipped spectacularly over the bar and two crosses that Robin van Persie blasted over. There was never the sort of sustained pressure that suggests an equalizer was inevitable.

It seems odd to speak of frailty or weaknesses when United stands 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League having won 16 of its last 18 games, while on course to smash league records. Yet the meekness of this exit and that to Real Madrid in the Champions League must be a concern for the future. As Sir Alex Ferguson has made clear throughout his career, ability is nothing without fight. He may also note that of his last five meetings with Benitez, he has lost four and drawn one, having won seven and drawn one of the first nine.

The issue here isn’t complicated – in fact, it’s been obvious since the end of last season. With Darren Fletcher still suffering the after-effects of his ulcerative colitis – it seems sadly probable now that he will never fully regain his form – United lacks a vigorous central midfielder, capable of rattling opponents physically. With Wayne Rooney absent with a groin problem, there wasn’t even the option of having him drop back to unsettle Mikel. That effectively ceded the center to Chelsea, as happened in the second half at Old Trafford after Mikel had come on. Ferguson tried to combat Chelsea’s strength in that area by using Phil Jones alongside Michael Carrick in front of the back four but that served only to lessen United’s capacity to frustrate Chelsea by keeping the ball away from it.

United will be crowned champions in the next couple of weeks and can match Chelsea’s 2004-05 record of 95 points even if it loses two of its last eight league games. Still, United are a team with many flaws. As its season becomes a relaxed procession, with only the precise grade of glory in question, Chelsea battle on, hunting two trophies with a top four finish in mind.