• Manager says he has no issue with anyone at Chelsea
• Spaniard believes John Terry is still a key player
Rafael Benítez claims senior players within the Chelsea squad have thanked him for his impassioned call for unity in midweek, an outburst that has conversely further inflamed tensions with the club's already livid support, as he braces himself for a toxic reception at Stamford Bridge for Saturday's visit of West Bromwich Albion.
The Spaniard, marking 100 days of his volatile interim stewardship of the European Cup holders, attempted to explain his premeditated criticism of fans, delivered in the wake of Wednesday's FA Cup win at Middlesbrough, whom he felt were damaging the club by venting their spleen over his presence. Benítez believes he retains the backing of Roman Abramovich and the board and will be permitted to see out his seven-month contract, though there is a recognition that after two wins in six league games results need to improve.
The stand-in manager said he had "no regrets" about taking the job and that family and friends "support" and "agree" with his decision to take up the reins of the club, with whom his former employers, Liverpool, endured such a ferocious rivalry. Indeed, he suggested that, if Chelsea do go on to secure a top‑four finish over their final 11 games of this season, then the airing of his frustrations on Teesside will clearly have been worthwhile.
Benítez already claims to have been thanked by many of the squad. "A lot of them [have thanked me]," he said. "A lot of the players have been supporting me, telling me to carry on doing my job. I was trying to do the best for my team. And the best for my team is to have a very good atmosphere behind them, feeling their support like against Napoli last season and Arsenal [in January]. They were running an extra mile in those games, so I was trying to explain that if we stick together it will be easier. The players would enjoy having everyone pushing in the same direction.
"It is very clear: I don't have a problem with anyone here, with the owner, the board, the players, [the sporting director Michael] Emenalo. I talk with him every day, the board when they are around, the owner when he is around. If we can stick together in the next 11 games, [the ramifications of his outburst] will be positive, for sure. It was all about that. I don't want to be a distraction. I am trying to do the best for my team and my club. Don't have any doubt about that. I am part of the team. I need the supporters behind the team.
"I will carry on doing my best until the last day I am here: with education, respect, principles, because that was the way I have done it for 26 years from when I started in the academy in Real Madrid. What I want is everyone supporting the team, to achieve what we want to achieve."
Support for Benítez will be distinctly lacking at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon, with fans to renew their vociferous calls for him to be removed from his position with immediate effect.
While it is unclear whether Abramovich will be in attendance himself, the Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck, Emenalo and the chief executive, Ron Gourlay, will all be at the game having been conspicuous by their absence at the Riverside – the club insist two board members were unwell and another had a prior business arrangement in London that night – and will gauge the effect the atmosphere has on the team's performance.
Should Chelsea, who start the game two points clear of fifth-place Arsenal, succumb to West Brom then Benítez's position could be deemed untenable. The 52-year-old had risked burning bridges with the board and owner by criticising the decision to tag him an "interim" first-team manager back in November and, while he reiterated that title was still a "mistake", he insisted it was "no longer an issue".
He claimed to have laughed and joked with Gourlay as the latter watched training from the touchline on Thursday and was dismissive of suggestions that his brief spell at the club was drawing to a close. Rather, the Spaniard used his pre-match media briefing at Cobham on Friday to renew his call for unity.
There were 13 mentions of the need to "stick together" in his session with broadcasters and written press, the manager only occasionally losing his cool, with Benítez acknowledging this remains "a team in transition" with some players who are still "settling into the Premier League".
"There have been some games where we did well but did not win, and we might if the players had had the experience," he said, arguing that made it all the more imperative to create a more buoyant atmosphere, before going on to justify the timing of his decision to air his frustration at the abuse he has endured. "Analysing the situation for the next 11 games, I think we need to stick together. It's very clear. When the atmosphere is good, the players perform a little bit better."
Whether the captain, John Terry, performs at all against West Brom remains to be seen with the management staff still wary of the centre-half playing twice within a few days after suffering a knee injury last November.
"He's an important player for us," added Benítez. "He has quality, he is the captain. I will decide whether he can play two games a week with the intensity he needs. I have had a lot of conversations with players, and the majority of them say they are happy with the training sessions, the methods, the intensity. There are always one or two in a squad of 25 who aren't happy because all players want to play, but I think they are quite happy."