Rafael Benítez believes Chelsea travel to Manchester City on Sunday a better side than the one that confronted the Premier League champions in the first game of his interim stewardship almost three months ago and hopeful they can still oust their opponents to achieve a top-two finish.
The Spaniard will recall Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz to his starting lineup and could yet opt to return John Terry to the bench after his exertions in Thursday's Europa League draw against Sparta Prague. The 32-year-old club captain has been offered another reminder that he is no longer a guaranteed starter for the team as Benítez celebrated the options he has at his disposal at centre-half, and with the luxury of a near fully fit squad from which to choose.
His first game in charge was a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge against City on 25 November, three days after his appointment as Roberto Di Matteo's short-term successor. "If you compare the side from that game, we've had a lot of clean sheets since and continue scoring goals," Benítez said. "We have more balance. In that game we were strong in defence but didn't create too many chances. Now we have more balance and are creating opportunities as well. We can still improve but, when you're playing two games every week, it's not easy to prepare the team. Most managers can put ideas across in pre-season, normally, but the team are adapting and finding that balance.
"What I can see now is a team at Chelsea who have confidence. We are confident we can beat City if we do things the right way. We are creating chances in every game, and we're going in the right direction. We have confidence in ourselves, and a good atmosphere in the club. If we win this match we will be closer to them [a point behind], but the race for the top four will go until the end of the season. Our last game is against Everton, so it will be very close right to the end. If we win this game, we can fight to be in the top two. If not, we'll fight to be in the top four."
Benítez pointed to a strength in depth now that players are returning to fitness and from the African Cup of Nations, offering him choices in his selection that he has not always enjoyed. Fernando Torres, whose display against Sparta was again praised by the interim first-team manager, may now drop out for Demba Ba to return, the signing from Newcastle having been cup-tied in midweek. Terry came through 90 minutes against the Czechs, his fourth full game since 23 October, but may now make way with David Luiz and Ivanovic restored in central defence.
Asked if the captain was fit enough to play at the Etihad, Benítez said: "If you ask me if he can, yes he can. Does he have to play? I'll analyse the other options we have. We have four centre-backs, which is really good for me. We will analyse how they are on Saturday and we'll see how they feel. Then we'll make a decision." Would it constitute a risky decision to leave him out? "No. Why? He's an important player for us, a great character and a leader, but still we have enough quality in this position. Cahill and Ivanovic have been doing really well. David Luiz is a third option. We have four options there, which is good for me to analyse."
Petr Cech added: "Second place is more than possible for us. We just need to have a good run of results. If we win those games, we will have a chance. To win the league we are maybe too far away. It would need a meltdown from Manchester United, but it depends on them. But, against City, they are at home and need to win if they want to challenge United for the title. We can't have any more slip-ups. They are behind and the pressure is on them, and they have to fight with that."