Football: Rafael Benitez faces his biggest test yet at Chelsea as the club aim to avoid a humiliating first-round exit from the Champions League tomorrow night.
No reigning champion has ever suffered such a fate, but that prospect is very real for the Blues, who won the competition last May but could now fall at the first hurdle in their maiden defence of the trophy.
The Londoners, currently third in Group E on seven points, must defeat FC Nordsjælland and hope that group leaders Shakhtar Donetsk defeat Juventus, who are in second spot on nine points.
It is a tough ask for Chelsea, especially given their recent poor form which has only worsened under Benitez, whose three matches in charge have seen the wealthy club draw with Manchester City and Fulham at Stamford Bridge before a chastening 3-1 defeat last weekend at the hands of West Ham, who hitherto had not defeated their rivals since 2003.
Under the circumstances Benitez could certainly do with the support of the club’s fans who have barracked him ever since he arrived for what they perceive as slights made against their club when he was manager of Liverpool and the two outfits enjoyed a series of titanic battles in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
In that light the Spaniard, who has an illustrious personal history in this competition, is desperate for a result tomorrow evening. For that to happen, though, he claims his senior players need to raise their game.
“Some players can show character but if you have one or two and they are not playing at the level then the team as a team is suffering,” Benitez said.
That remark particularly applies to misfiring striker Fernando Torres, who has found the back of the net just once in his last 11 appearances.
Benitez must decide whether to stick with his compatriot and can also call on defender David Luiz, who is available again after missing the West Ham loss through suspension.
John Terry (knee), Frank Lampard (calf) and Daniel Sturridge (hamstring) are all close to returning but tomorrow’s game comes too soon.
Elsewhere Manchester United host CFR Cluj-Napoca. Alex Ferguson’s men have already qualified from Group H and the United manager confirmed that defender Nemanja Vidic will not be making his first appearance since knee surgery and will also miss Sunday’s Manchester derby.