Rafael Benítez has been told to prioritise a top-four finish and qualification for next season's Champions League over the remainder of his interim stewardship of Chelsea as Roman Abramovich looks to salvage a position in Europe's elite competition from a traumatic campaign.
The stand-in manager, whose contract at Stamford Bridge expires at the end of the season, met the technical director, Michael Emenalo, at the club's Cobham training base on Tuesday morning in the wake of defeat by Swansea in the Capital One Cup semi-final and Sunday's unconvincing draw at Brentford in the FA Cup. Emenalo – acting as a go-between for Abramovich – impressed upon Benítez that all efforts must focus on a top-four finish rather than retaining the FA Cup or winning the Europa League.
There is a recognition not only of the financial necessity to qualify for the Champions League but also that their participation in that competition would have a major bearing on the recruitment of a new manager as well as squad strengthening. Chelsea are third, seven points ahead of fifth-placed Everton.
Benítez's position is not under immediate threat and at present the board expects him to see out the season as planned. However, with supporter opposition to the Spaniard continuing unabated, he is unlikely to earn a longer stay at the club and Chelsea have begun to consider their options for a long-term replacement.
Candidates on that list will include José Mourinho, Jürgen Klopp, Michael Laudrup and David Moyes, and the club are hopeful that Benítez will bequeath his successor Champions League football. "All I can say is what I know: I have had meetings," said the interim first-team manager. "We were talking about the situation and it's clear for me the priority is the top four and progressing as much as we can in the other competitions. My position is exactly the same: I will try to do my job as well as I can. I cannot lose my focus."
Benítez feels he has brought balance to the team, if perhaps not consistency to their results, though there is frustration welling within the squad that performances amid a cluttered fixture schedule have not always sparked. John Terry, who made his first start under Benítez at Brentford, issued a trademark rallying cry ahead of Wednesday's trip to Reading, their 41st game of the season, dismissing squad rotation as a potential excuse for underachievement.
"We need to liven up a bit and realise the importance to the fans and the club," said Terry, with Chelsea having won only three of their past eight games in all competitions. "Champions League football is a must next season. We saw last season, going to the Champions League final, suffering with all the extra games and stuff like that, we ended up finishing sixth in the league. It's difficult but we have a squad and it's down to the players who come in to rotate and play well."
Terry described last week's Capital One Cup semi-final second leg draw at Swansea as "lacklustre", adding he would rather have "lost that three or 4-0 and given it a go" than stumbling meekly from the competition. Benítez believes he retains the players' support and spoke on Tuesday with Terry, Frank Lampard and David Luiz – the Brazilian will be absent on Wednesday evening along with Petr Cech with ankle and calf complaints respectively – as the squad seek to address recent failings and inject momentum back into their campaign.
"The players are quite happy with the ways we are doing things, so that is the most positive thing," said Benítez. "If I saw my players in training without conviction, I'd be worried. But they're happy. In the last 10 days we had a fantastic game against Arsenal, not such a good game against Swansea, and a 50:50 the other day [at Brentford]. At the end of the season we will see, but I have confidence in the team. The priority is the top four, very clear. But I will try and compete in the other competitions, too."