The Chelsea interim manager senses a hunger – not just in his stellar striker at Liverpool but in the rest of the talented squad
In his crisply fresh white Chelsea tracksuit, a rush of colour suddenly flushed Rafael Benítez's cheeks as he contemplated the question of whether he had greeted his old charge Fernando Torres with an embrace. Getting to know a new set of players, particularly in an environment where the stalwarts were well drilled to regard Benítez with the general piquancy that fizzed between Stamford Bridge and Anfield for a while, surely it must have been nice to see a familiar face?
"I am not someone who is shaking hands with everyone," he said bashfully, gesturing as if the act of introducing himself one by one to a new audience was something of a bind. There are many aspects to Benítez that radiate self-assurance, but talk of hugs and friendliness made him look a little bit embarrassed.
Brushing off the idea that a reunion with Torres meant anything particularly significant was an important part of the business-like signal Benítez wants to send out to the rest of the squad. Chelsea's latest interim coach has made a concerted effort over the past couple of days to play down talk of his role as the key to unblock the notoriously important and complex No9. Benítez strongly believes it would not be right for it to come across that way. Any answer to the Torres question is peppered with references to his team-mates, or generalised to reference an overall improvement, not just an individual one. "If we continue talking about Fernando and not the others it is not fair," he stresses.
Benítez is conscious of doing the right thing by all Chelsea's players. Whether that makes enough of an impression on the dressing room leaders remains to be seen, but it is the right call. He pulled Torres over for a chat during the training sessions at Cobham last this week, but the same applied to many of the striker's team-mates.
Beneath his best endeavours to make it look like Torres is not a special case, Benítez knows that solving this particular problem is a fundamental task. The subject, naturally, was one of the topics of conversation over dinner with Roman Abramovich shortly after his appointment on Thursday.
"My job now is to find out why he is not scoring as many goals as he was at Liverpool," Benítez says. "I have my ideas. I was talking with him."
The trick with Torres is, he believes, a combination of gentle confidence boosting and tougher motivation. "With the arm on the shoulder, normally you are in the middle of the table. When you have to push the player, that is when you can compete for titles. With Fernando you have to put your arm around the shoulder and push him."
His man-management is vital in these early days and weeks, as he tries to transmit his ideas to a group who may not all be eagerly receptive. Benítez has three very different areas to connect with. There is Torres; the core group of veterans that date back to the Mourinho successes; and the fresh-faced talents upon which Chelsea wish to build their future – Oscar, Juan Mata and a player Benítez tried to sign for Liverpool, Eden Hazard. You sense that is one area that particularly makes him tick.
That is especially the case considering how anyone Abramovich hires is charged with trying to find the balance between successful football and a sumptuous brand. "Anyone can agree that the small players – like when you talk about Barcelona – are really good, really dynamic and can make a difference," Benítez says. "At the same time you can see the team is quite strong. You have players with this winning mentality that you are looking for, players with this quality that can make the difference. At the same time you have very good players that you can improve because maybe they are not at the level they can be. Altogether, for me as a manager, it's very exciting."
Abramovich made it clear at the first meeting that Chelsea are expected to win with panache. "He told me – and I was talking with [technical director] Michael Emenalo before that – he wants to win and he wants to do it well, playing in style. But he's not desperate in terms of we have to play Barcelona style. He wants to enjoy watching games. The way that we create chances could be passing the ball or with a long ball. It's just to see his team with this attacking mentality and creating chances."
Does he get the impression an attacking mentality is paramount? Benítez steels his gaze in response. "A winning mentality." With that in mind, Benítez paints a picture to suggest that one way he hopes to engage with Chelsea is to persuade John Terry that coach and captain have more in common than they might previously have thought. "I was talking to him about the winning mentality that they had, and the winning mentality that we had [at Liverpool]. We were fighting against one of the best teams in the Premier League, the best team of the time. I am looking for the same mentality now. He is the kind of player you want pushing with you, because that is the key to be successful."
He observes a big difference between Chelsea and his former experience picking up the reins of a Champions League winning team at Internazionale in 2010. When he walked into training at Appiano Gentile, he found a group of veterans who were, he implies, enjoying their recent triumphs a little too much, and he was not backed to freshen up the squad. "In Italy they say mangia piena – eat and then you are full," he says. "Here it is totally different. You can see the hunger of the players. We have players who want to win, young players who can improve, who want to work very hard and have quality."
If anything, Benítez feels his period out of the game has intensified his own will to win. During his sabbatical, which lasted the best part of two years, he tried to sharpen his football analysis by studying football from a position where he was not under constant pressure. It gave him a different kind of clarity. "You watch the Champions League final and you have an idea. You watch another game, you have an idea. And so you're ready for the next challenge," he says. "Sometimes when you are working, you are working so hard that you don't see everything. What I can guarantee is when you come back you are more focused, you have better vision and you have more commitment."
The appointment of Bolo Zenden as his assistant, and bridge-builder, is a useful one to smooth the connections between the Benítez way and the Chelsea way. "I was looking for someone who could give the inside story of the club quickly, because we don't have time," he adds.
The bottom line is that Benítez would not be about to sit down in the Stamford Bridge home dugout if he did not genuinely believe club and manager can work together in pursuit of immediate trophies. He rates Chelsea as better placed to win the Premier League than his Liverpool team that finished runners-up to Manchester United in 2008-09. "I think Chelsea is as strong as Manchester City or United. The teams at the top they are very close," he says. "At Liverpool, we didn't have too much money for the squad. We had to go for the 11 starters and four or five players, and then we had to manage with the others. Here there is a little bit more depth."
Getting every single one of Chelsea's players onside, and fast, is the first part of the mission before anything can be accomplished.