Rafa rattled by Saints

Southhampton 2 Chelsea 1
Rafael Benitez’s big gamble at Southampton may have backfired but the Chelsea manager retains the belief his side can overcome a vibrant and refreshed Manchester United side in today’s FA Cup sixth round replay and inspire a run of form that will salvage something from a unhappy season at Stamford Bridge.

The Spaniard admitted before the trip to St Mary’s Stadium that with while both he and Alex Ferguson had to cope with the demands of two high pressure games in 48 hours, the United manager held the advantage because of his side’s dominance at the head of the Premier League table.

That, according to Benitez, meant Ferguson could shuffle his pack more liberally. Saturday’s events also confirmed, by the Chelsea interim manager’s own admission, that he doesn’t possess the depth of quality in his squad to match that of his increasingly distant rival.

Benitez made seven changes to his side to face a Southampton team struggling to remain clear of the bottom three and the effect was clear. Without a clutch of his better players – David Luiz, Ramires, Ashley Cole, Eden Hazard, Demba Ba, Juan Mata and Gary Cahill – Chelsea were poor and left both Benitez and Petr Cech, his goalkeeper, perplexed by a display more in keeping with a team basking mid-table comfort rather than one scrapping for a top four place.

“Suddenly we had the international break and it feels like it didn’t do us any favours,” admitted Cech. “It looked like we lacked rhythm from the start.”

In many ways, it summed up why the club has been unable to build on last May’s unexpected Champions League triumph. The squad is not good enough and Benitez knows it. Others might recognise it too, but it seems the antagonism towards the manager too often continues to overshadow everything at the club.

“You have a team in transition, a new manager, new players,” said Benitez, before contrasting his side with Ferguson’s.

“United have the same manager for years and 80% of the squad is the same. Chelsea are changing because they have brought in some good players but they still need to settle down and they have to be consistent. That is the one thing that you will have when you know the league, the referees and the rivals and your team-mates. So it is a question of time.”

Time is something Benitez does not have but the final weeks of his stay will be more comfortable if he can continue to progress on three fronts and victory today will help immeasurably.

“It will be a boost for everyone if we win,” Benitez said. “I still think we can manage if everything is going well. It’s hard when you have to make decisions if things are not going well. When you win everyone will be happier with more confidence and belief for the next game. Monday is a big game against a very good side but we saw at Old Trafford that we can do it and we will try to do it.”

Six of Saturday’s seven absentees will return with Cahill unlikely to recover from a knee problem and that should improve levels of performance that were woefully low during a first half when Southampton took the lead through the excellent Jay Rodriguez in the 23rd minute and then reclaimed the advantage through Rickie Lambert’s free-kick, two minutes ater John Terry had headed Chelsea level.

Mauricio Pochettino has now overseen victories over Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea and on this evidence and a fourth win against Reading, now managed by predecessor Nigel Adkins, will be particularly poignant, Saints look good value to stay up with Lambert’s form continuing to impress. The striker’s goal was an apt way of marking his new contract that will keep him at the club until 2016.

Now 32, the one-time lower league journeyman is the leading English scorer in his first season in the Premier League with 14 goals and is, according to team-mate Steve Davis, worthy of international recognition.

“I’m sure Roy Hodgson has been watching him,” said Davis. “He has shown a level of consistency this year that maybe some of the English strikers haven’t. I think he deserves a chance.

“He has got a lot of attributes than maybe people realise who watch him on a one-off occasion. Maybe he is seen as a big old fashioned centre-forward but he has good feet and holds the ball up well. He does a great job for the team.”

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