Bullish Benitez believes Blues can claim title
Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez. Photo: Reuters
RAFA Benitez will take the microphone on the flight back from Japan and tell his Chelsea players that they can win the English Premier League. If the Blues are crowned champions of the world by overcoming Corinthians on Sunday in the Club World Cup, Benitez believes their chances of making up the 10-point deficit on the leader, Manchester United, will be even easier. One has to admire his confidence.
Encountered at Chelsea's hotel here, Benitez was in bullish mood, insisting that he can organise Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Eden Hazard and company into genuine title challengers, emphasising that he also has the experience of overturning opponents' leads.
''At Valencia we were eight points behind Real Madrid in January  and were in the hotel, in a corridor, and I was talking with Ayala, Canizares and Pellegrino, maybe Aimar, and I told them we would win the league,'' Benitez said. ''They thought I was crazy. But I remember Canizares saying after we'd finished eight points ahead of Real that 'Rafa had told us we would in January'. The way we trained was key.''
Benitez's core style was - and is - about repetition, about players learning positional discipline. Chelsea's interim first-team coach has already conducted a session out here in specific preparation for Leeds United in a high-octane League Cup tie on Wednesday. ''With the way we train here, I have confidence we will be better and better every single week.'' So much better that the title is possible, Benitez claimed.
''When I talk to players here, I can see in their faces that they have the belief. If we win here and we play like we played against Monterrey [in the semi-final of the Club World Cup], with the quality we have going forward and the right balance in defence, the team can win three or four games in a row easily and the confidence can be so high.''
He was looking far afield, and not simply from the sumptuous vantage-point of the 70th floor of Chelsea's hotel. Benitez was sitting in the team's meal room, a five-star eyrie so high up that your ears popped as the lift tore towards the skies. He was chatty, occasionally feisty, delivering gentle punches to this observer's shoulder and moving water bottles and a salt pot around the table as he explained tactical tweaks to Chelsea's back line.
Benitez is on a charm offensive, partly to win friends for a club battered with image issues but also because he wants to be mentioned in glowing terms when major jobs become available.
Benitez is also the man who does not boast many friends among his managerial peers in England, who had such a reputation for not celebrating golden moments that his captain in Istanbul, Steven Gerrard, told him to have a beer and unwind at Liverpool's 2005 Champions League victory party. Benitez famously greeted a jubilant Gerrard with a question about his first-half marking.
So it was important to look beyond the smile, to understand that this is a man with a point to prove to Alex Ferguson, to Jose Mourinho, to some former players and the majority of a quizzical media. Benitez is the outstanding outsider and the charm on the surface could not conceal a certain chippiness.
A two-time winner of La Liga with unfashionable Valencia, Benitez craved proper recognition. ''Look at the [his] CV,'' he demanded, ''and then analyse the CVs of other managers who people think are amazing in England and you think: 'What is going on here?' Analyse it. I have the confidence in myself for years.
''When I was 11 I was playing football in Madrid, winning championships between schools in Madrid, and I was captain. I was taking notes at 13, analysing football.
''I was at the Real Madrid academy and got injured, but I'd been playing with the likes of Vicente Del Bosque and I wasn't scared of any of them.
''My degree is in physical education … you have to explain, repeat, teach. Against Monterrey, we had a penetrating pass for Ashley Cole on the left in the second half. John Obi Mikel and Cesar Azpilicueta had another one on the other side. That was part of our training.''
For all the Chelsea fans' antipathy towards a former Liverpool manager, Benitez is having an impact on their club. ''I could be working in Spain, Italy or China, earning massive money at a club in the middle of the table for 10 years but I want to win trophies.''
And bury ghosts. Benitez still confronts memories of discomforting events in the 2008-09 season when his Liverpool team chased Ferguson's United but finished four points adrift. He still has not moved on. ''They scored in the last minute against Aston Villa,'' Benitez recalled of Federico Macheda's late winner for United on April 5, 2009.
He has neither forgotten a controversial spot-kick nor forgiven referee Howard Webb for a game-changing incident at Old Trafford 20 days later.
''United were 2-0 down and then they got that penalty,'' reflected Benitez of Michael Carrick's suspect tumble. ''I remember,'' he sighed. How Benitez would love some title nirvana.