Rafael Benítez defends team selection as Chelsea crash to Southampton

• Blues slip to fourth after third away defeat in a row
• Manager says resources stretched by seven games in 19 days

Rafael Benítez defended his controversial team selection at Southampton after Chelsea suffered a 2-1 defeat that jeopardises their pursuit of Champions League qualification, and defiantly insisted his side will finish in the top four.

The visitors slipped a place to fourth after a third successive away defeat in the Premier League, and sit only two points above Arsenal, as they embark upon a draining fixture schedule of seven games in 19 days. Benítez, with Juan Mata and Gary Cahill ruled out through illness and injury respectively, made seven changes from the team that beat West Ham before the international window, with Monday's visit of Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-final replay in mind, though his team found their rhythm only late on.

"I have confidence we will finish in the top four and could win one or two trophies," said the interim first-team manager, who was subjected to the customary abuse from Chelsea's travelling fans, particularly when he substituted Oscar for Yossi Benayoun 14 minutes from time. "We're still there and I have confidence and belief in these players, who have quality. But we had to manage the squad and, with these games coming so close together, less than 48 hours apart, you have to make decisions.

"In the Premier League we have more games to play. The FA Cup is just one game. If we'd had three or four days [in between] we could have managed it in a different way. Two days, it's not easy, so you have to make decisions in the squad. Southampton are a good team on one level, but United are another team at another level. I had to find a balance and, in the first half, it was not good enough. The second half, much better."

Benítez, whose side could be fifth by the time they play in the Premier League next weekend, hopes to have Mata available against United after a virus but is braced to be without Cahill as he continues his rehabilitation from a knee injury sustained against West Ham. The Spaniard intends to offer his hand to Sir Alex Ferguson, a manager with whom he has endured such a fractious relationship throughout his time in English football.

The pair did not acknowledge each other in the original tie at Old Trafford. "The local manager – me in this case – will look for the away manager and try and shake his hand," said Benitez. "But if you look at the DVD from that first game, you can see a fact: a photographer talking with him. You will see who was right. But I will go anyway and try and shake his hand. This is a massive game against a very good side in a massive competition."

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