LONDON (Reuters) - Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez sought to build bridges and ease tensions on Friday, two days after castigating hostile fans and aiming a swipe at club officials for his ‘interim’ job title.
The Spaniard, routinely jeered by a section of Chelsea’s support since replacing the sacked Roberto Di Matteo in November, unleashed a passionate invective after Wednesday’s 2-0 FA Cup victory at Middlesbrough, saying he would leave when his short-term deal ran out at the end of the season.
At a news conference on the eve of Saturday’s home game with West Bromwich Albion, a smiling and relaxed Benitez said he was only trying to get fans to rally round the cause of helping Chelsea finish in the top four of the Premier League.
“If you analyse carefully I was trying to explain we have 11 games to play, 33 points, if we stick together it will be easy for us to get points,” Benitez said on Friday.
”The fans are really important for the team. We need the atmosphere we had against Arsenal (in January) and Napoli.
“The message is clear - I have no problem with the board, (technical director) Michael Emenalo, (owner) Roman Abramovich or the players. I will do the best for the club. I have 26 years as a manager of principles, respect and education to achieve what I have.”
Last season Chelsea produced a superb comeback, recovering from a 3-1 first-leg deficit against Napoli to win the return match 4-1 and reach the Champions League quarter-finals before going on to win the trophy for the first time.
Benitez repeated the phrase “if we stick together it will be easier for us” on numerous occasions as he sought to dampen the almost inevitable hostility he is likely to face from the fans on Saturday.
In a packed room at the club’s Cobham training ground, he said he had been involved in amicable discussions with Chelsea’s powerbrokers in the wake of his midweek comments.
“The title (of interim manager) came three months ago and it was just a point that was put across. I think it is not a problem because we have a lot of games,” he said.
“Yesterday I was talking with Ron (Gourlay, chief executive), we were joking and talking, a normal conversation about football.”
Benitez refused, however, to divulge the nature of any contact he might have had with owner Abramovich. “This is my business,” he said curtly.
In contrast, he was more than happy to let it be known that several players had supported him in the wake of his outburst.
When asked if any of his squad had praised him for what he said, he replied: “A lot of them. A lot of the players have been supporting me and saying carry on doing your job.”
After a training-ground exchange with captain John Terry in the wake of Sunday’s 2-0 Premier League defeat at Manchester City, Benitez was at pains to point out that, broadly speaking, everyone was pulling in the same direction.
“What I can say is I have a lot of conversations with players, they say they are pleased with the training sessions, my methods, the tactics,” Benitez said.
”We try to do our best, sometimes you cannot, but definitely they are quite happy.
“You have 25 players in your squad, you will always have one or two who are not happy, but you can ask the same question to every single player in every single squad around the world and you will find someone who is not quite happy because he is not playing, and you can only play 11.”
Benitez was adamant Terry was not among the minority of malcontents in his ranks.
Player-power aside, Chelsea find themselves in a difficult situation.
They are fourth in the league, 19 points behind leaders Manchester United and facing a battle to finish in the top four to earn a Champions League spot next season.
Despite progress in the FA Cup and Europa League, they have taken only four points from their last four games and need to find form quickly.
Benitez will know failure to finish in the top four would have implications for his own reputation and future job offers.
He said he did not regret taking on the Chelsea job but felt he had to let the fans know he would definitely not be sticking around next season.
“When I took the job it was because I had ambition to win trophies and this is a massive club,” added Benitez.
“I finish my contract and I don’t want to be a distraction and if we concentrate on supporting the team, everything will be better.”
Editing by Justin Palmer and Tony Jimenez