Chelsea - Man Utd: Benitez defends squad rotation

Rafael Benitez: Shuffled his pack. Picture: Reuters
Rafael Benitez: Shuffled his pack. Picture: Reuters
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Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez has stood by his team selection for the 2-1 defeat at Southampton on Saturday as he prepared for today’s clash with Manchester United.

The FA Cup quarter-final replay against United comes less than 48 hours after the Barclays Premier League loss against the Saints. Benitez made seven changes for the trip to St Mary’s, no doubt with an eye on today’s clash with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in mind.

The gamble backfired as goals from Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert earned Southampton the victory, with returning skipper John Terry briefly levelling the scoreline in the first half. But Benitez reckons the longevity of a Premier League season compared to the cut-and-thrust nature of knockout football means he had to shuffle his pack.

“You have to make decisions and use the squad,” he said. “Southampton is a good team on one level and Manchester United is another team on another level. In the league, you have more games to play and will be going to the end. In the FA Cup you have one game and you will be out. You have to find the balance for players who are playing more games or less games.”

The defeat means Chelsea dropped below London rivals Tottenham into fourth place in the table but with five games in a two-week period – including both legs of a Europa League quarter-final with Rubin Kazan – Benitez feels his side are still in the hunt for both a top-four finish and silverware.

“I have confidence that we will finish in the top four and maybe we can win one or two trophies,” he added. “I have the belief and the confidence in these players because they have the quality and if they realise that we have to start games with the same intensity as the second half (against Southampton), we can beat anyone.”

Chelsea have already played 54 games this season and the Blues’ players are no strangers to the rigours of playing midweek games off the back of league fixtures. But Benitez feels the proximity of the FA Cup replay against United – with the winners to face Manchester City in a Wembley semi-final – makes for difficult preparation. “This one is so close,” he said. “48 hours, less than 48 hours, you have to make decisions. If you have three days, four days you can manage in a different way. But two days between games is not easy. It (the performance against United) has to be good. Everybody knows this is a massive game against a very good side in a massive competition. It has to be positive for the players.”

Chelsea were without Juan Mata for the defeat at Southampton with the 24-year-old missing through illness.

Mata has struck 18 goals in all competitions this season and is likely to return to face United but Gary Cahill, who is carrying a knee injury, is not expected to be fit in time.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will have to assess how his players have come through Saturday’s 1-0 league win at Sunderland. Nemanja Vidic’s hefty aerial collision with David de Gea may play a part in Ferguson’s selection at Stamford Bridge, Rafael’s groin injury definitely will.

Yesterday, Old Trafford skipper Vidic said he was determined to ensure the FA Cup is part of this season’s trophy haul when he heads off on his summer break. “My aim before every season is to win a trophy,” said Vidic, who has yet to win the FA Cup.

“You want to be there for the big games and once the season is finished, and you are going home or on holiday, you want to see what you have won. That is the thing that has always pushed me.”

And Vidic accepts cup competitions in England are something slightly different, even if the big clubs usually end up contesting the latter stages.

“The cup in Serbia is obviously a trophy but the league has always been seen as the main thing,” said Vidic.

“Over the last few years in England the semi-finals and finals have always been interesting because Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal have always been there and they are the teams who are always watched. People always want to see them, especially when they are fighting for a trophy. It makes them important games.”