This weekend sees 3rd place Chelsea (29 pts) entertain 12th place Newcastle United (15 pts).
It’ll be an interesting fixture as Rafa Benitez returns to the club he won the Europa League as an interim manager in 2013. Less of the sentiment however as both sides will be fighting for points to see them either remain in the title hunt or maintain their status as a Premier League outfit.
Last time out, Chelsea beat Swansea City, a side managed by another former Chelsea man, 1-0, with the only goal coming from Antonio Rudiger in the second half. The previous day saw the visitors battle back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at the Hawthorns.
The promoted side showed their resilience by staging a comeback, but I’m sure there’ll be no such repeat should they go behind in that sort of manner against a side that are raring to maintain their push for the title.
Having said that, United’s work will be cut out for them – due to the fact that Antonio Conte would be in the stands rather than on the sidelines following his remonstrations with an official during the crucial home win over relegation-threatened Swansea City.
Benitez’ side have already played three of the leagues “top six” sides, and have garnered just a solitary point at home to Liverpool in October. They’ve lost at home to Tottenham Hotspur (in August) and away at Manchester United (in November).
Ahead of this weekends encounter, both managers spoke to the media.
Antonio Conte was first in the spotlight:
On whether resting players is beneficial:
In this busy period, it is important to have this rest for all players. I think it was positive because we won the game and had a good answer from my players. When a period is busy, it is necessary to have rotation.
Having not encountered such problems last season (due to not playing European fixtures), he realises how difficult it is to play everyone in a tight schedule. Sometimes, a manager needs to drop best players (for a game or two) in order to preserve them for the rest of the season.
On how Cesar Azpilicueta took being dropped:
“It is normal, I repeat, when you play four competitions in one season, it is normal to have this type of rotations, and every player accepted it. I try to make the best decision. I trust my players and believe in them and give them the chance to show me they can play.
As I said before, dropping players is important for a team. Its difficult for players to come to terms with being dropped, but sacrifices must be taken in order to help the team.
He was asked whether the home support should respect Benitez:
“I think Rafa in his spell, did well. To win the Europa League is not simple. When Chelsea won it, it is right to give respect. Also, if for a long time the coach was the coach of an opponent, you think this. He was the coach for many years of Liverpool. I think only for this. I think our fans are very good for this.
I would expect Chelsea fans to give their former interim manager a warm reception, given that he won the club their second successive European trophy.
Speaking of Benitez, Conte was also asked about whether the relationship between him, and the Newcastle manager was “bad”
“No, this is not true. Rafa did a great job in his time with Napoli. Then I remember when I was the coach of the national team I went to watch the training session with Napoli and stayed with him. He is a good manager and has won a lot with his career. I have great respect for him.
Nice to know he sets the record straight with that one!
On the future of his conduct [he’s banned from touchline duties following remonstrating with fourth official in the win over Swansea City]:
“I hope in the future that I will tell my players to go on the pitch and tell this to the referee. I try to avoid to suggest this to the fourth official. I go to my players to push them to go to the referee”.
Its best for him that he does this as he’d rather not get himself in trouble again! He wants his players to speak up about “anti-football” tactics such as time-wasting.
Rafa Benitez was next to speak to the media.
He was first asked about Aleksandar Mitrovic:
“We have good competition with strikers and I am pleased with it”.
Its good to have competition in many areas.
“I like to rotate. It depends on your team and if they understand what they have to do.”
Unlike Chelsea, Newcastle don’t have any European commitments, which means they wouldn’t have to rotate as much. But this period is pretty tight, and keeping fresh legs is important.
Asked about Antonio Conte:
“I think he’s doing well. Last season, they had one competition, with Europe he has to manage the squad in a different way”.
Having experienced difficulties with battling on multiple fronts in his Liverpool days, Benitez feels for Conte.
Can Newcastle get something from the game?
“Chelsea will be there at the top of the table, but hopefully we can do something there and get some points”.
Benitez in bullish mood there…
Having battled back from a two-goal deficit last time out, I’d expect Newcastle to show the same resilience, but it’ll be difficult against a side gunning for the title. Having said that, should the promoted side go 2-0 down, I don’t think they’ll be able to see a way out. I’d go for a 3-1 win to Chelsea.
I asked my fellow TFF colleagues Jack Pattison, and Joe Buck how they think United will set up:
JP: “Defensively. Looking to hit them on the counter. I imagine we’ll stick with 4-4-2 again”.
JB: He dismissed Jacks 4-4-2 suggestion, and said this: “11 men behind the ball and I’d assume 4-2-3-1”. “We’d be too open for Rafa’s liking going 4-4-2”.