Club World Cup offers opportunity for Rafael Benítez and his under-performing squad to bond and regroup
Too much about Chelsea's campaign has felt depressingly familiar, from a prolonged slump as winter sets in to the brutal sacking of the manager, so there might be something refreshing about a step into the unknown. At around six o'clock local time on Sunday, Rafael Benítez and his players will touch down at Narita airport outside Tokyo seeking respite from recent toils, the week ahead offering the ailing European Cup winners the chance of world domination. The mid-season fillip has to be seized.
Their two-game stay in Yokohama may disrupt Premier League rhythm, casting them further adrift in the title race, but the interim manager and his players have to consider the Fifa World Club Cup an opportunity on the other side of the world. The tournament is often maligned by snootier European leagues, despite Barcelona, Manchester United, Milan and Benítez's Internazionale having claimed the prize in each of the past five years, but Chelsea will be seeking to change the perception. "You can never, ever, say challenging for a trophy comes at a bad time," Benítez says. "It's silverware and a cup we want to win."
It would offer the world a reminder that this team has not lost its way, despite becoming the first holders to fail to emerge from their Champions League group. Benítez arrived at Stamford Bridge last month, convinced he could coax the success expected by Roman Abramovich from a campaign that appeared to be unravelling, and there would be a certain prestige to emerging triumphant from this week-long stay in Japan. The owner was unimpressed that chances to win the Community Shield and European Super Cup were passed up in the autumn. This would be a timely occasion to buck that trend.
Benítez has experienced this competition twice before. It arguably provided the high point of his brief spell at Inter, in 2010, when the Italians were expected to meet Internacional in the final in Abu Dhabi, but ended up confronting, and defeating, the African champions, Mazembe of Congo. Five years earlier he had taken Liverpool to Yokohama in the first year of the tournament's current guise, defeating the Costa Ricans Deportivo Saprissa in the semi-final before succumbing, mystifyingly, to São Paulo in the final. The Spaniard ended that evening berating the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, for mistakes made by a Mexican referee and a Canadian linesman after seeing three goals disallowed in a 1-0 defeat. His players departed feeling cheated.
In truth, the manager's tournament had been overshadowed by the death of his father, Francisco, in the buildup to the semi-final, Benítez plunging himself into his work as he dealt with his grief with dignity. The whole week had felt rather torrid. This time around, he will use the finals as an opportunity to bond with his squad after a helter-skelter few weeks in charge – albeit in the absence of the injured captain John Terry – while seeking to repair damaged confidence. "It will be very positive, spending time with them in Japan, and that will help," he says. "The football will be very tough. It's a massive competition for a lot of people around the world. Maybe in Europe people don't consider it as important, but speak to Brazilians or Mexicans and you can see how they consider it. For them, it's an opportunity to show the level they are at, a chance to prove themselves against a big team from Europe.
"We are well aware of what this means for the South American teams, and we have Brazilian players in our squad who know already. The other sides have been in Japan for a while, acclimatising, so that will also make it harder for us. But we cannot look at playing Corinthians yet. First, we have to get through our semi-final and, as it proved two years ago, it does not always go as you expect."
That first game is on Thursday and by the time Chelsea arrive in Tokyo they will know if they are to play South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai or Mexico's Monterrey at the Yokohama international stadium. Corinthians, fresh from their first Copa Libertadores success, will take on either Sanfrecce Hiroshima or Al-Ahly in their semi-final in Toyota City.
"Whoever we have to play, it'll be really difficult," Benítez says. Yet he may find relief at avoiding any booing from his own supporters and will benefit from a prolonged period of time working at close quarters with his new players. Chelsea have to seek the positives from this mid-season tournament.