Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez has denied Alex Ferguson’s claim that the Premier League title race has been reduced to two clubs.
Champions Manchester City and leaders Manchester United collide at Etihad Stadium tomorrow and Ferguson is convinced the title winners will be supplied by one of them. Chelsea sit third, 10 points behind United and seven adrift of second-placed City, and must prevail at Sunderland today to stay in touch.
“I’m not worried about the distance. It’s important we win so we are close, but all we can do is think about one game at a time,” Benitez said.
“We have to improve the team and be mentally strong enough to compete in the second part of the league.
“At Valencia we were eight points behind in January. If we have to do the same here, we will do it. But we have to show the character we have.
“The main thing is about the evolution of our team. If we’re stronger, we’ll be able to win games in a row. We have to find form.”
Chelsea depart for the FIFA Club World Cup tonight.
The logistics of playing a two-match tournament in the Far East, book-ended by a Premier League clash with Sunderland and Capital One Cup tie against Leeds, is less than ideal for a club that also finds itself in the Europa League.
“Flying to the other side of the world isn’t beneficial, but can we change the situation? No,” Benitez said.
“You take the positives out of it which is I’ll spend the time with the players.!”
Frank Lampard has recovered from the calf injury that has sidelined him since October, but Benitez insists he will not start against Sunderland.
“It’s been too long out for him. He needs to come back little by little. He cannot start a game now,” he said.
“Lampard can find players between the lines, get into the box, score goals. So he’s a different kind of midfielder to those we have at the moment.
One man who won’t be going to Japan tomorrow is John Terry, who has been advised not to travel as he continues his recovery from a knee ligament injury.“John was quite excited about the competition because it was something different and a great opportunity,” the Spaniard said.
“We don’t know when he’ll play. He’s training very hard, but knees are a special case because it’s not muscle there are lots of joints to fix. He knows we have to be patient.”
A further absentee against Sunderland is John Obi Mikel, who yesterday received a three-match ban for confronting referee Mark Clattenburg after the stormy Premier League clash with United in October.
Benitez backed Torres to continue his path to redemption. “Fernando Torres was working very hard and the team was better attacking. He scored two more goals and hopefully there will be more.”
Meanwhile Sunderland Martin O’Neill remains confident better times ahead for the Black Cats.
He said: “It’s been a tough start to the season. It hasn’t come as any major surprise. The team is essentially the same as last season. It’s a tough struggle, but we’ll get there.”
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