Rafa set for stormy Everton reception
Liverpool, United Kingdom – Chelsea manager Rafael Benitez expects a hostile reception at Goodison Park on Sunday after branding Everton a small club during his days as Liverpool boss.
Benitez knows Everton supporters are unlikely to have forgotten the jibe, nor will it have been dismissed by Toffees manager David Moyes and his players.
That will only add to challenge confronting Benitez's side when they attempt to extend their recent revival and mark their ninth game in a gruelling December with a seventh win in eight games.
With Everton lying just two points behind Chelsea, this game will provide a telling test of Benitez's claim his side are ready to force their way back into the thick of the title race.
“I think Everton are doing a good job,” Benitez said. “They are doing well, they have fewer resources than other teams and are still competing. They are near the top of the table so credit to them.
“It is a good team and a tough game for sure. For us, we have to be ready physically as well as mentally for the game. They have been doing well in the past year and we know that Goodison is a difficult place to go to.”
Chelsea have struggled on their trips to Everton in recent seasons, losing their last three league fixtures at Goodison Park.
But recent victories, in particular the 8-0 thrashing of Aston Villa, have helped ease concerns about the effects of their congested recent programme that has included a trip to Japan for the Club World Cup.
Benitez, though, insists the flurry of games has taken its toll and he will again rotate his squad.
“Always when you win, it's easy to say, 'No' (the players haven't been affected),” he said. “But, to be fair, it's not easy to keep the same players.
“I like to change players, to move players around, because if we don't manage the squad they will be really tired.”
Everton could begin 2013 third place in the Premier League table if they overcome Chelsea.
The closest Everton have come to the Champions League group stage was in the 2005-06 campaign when they entered at the third qualifying round only to lose to Spanish side Villarreal 4-2 on aggregate.
But the Merseyside club, who start the weekend in fifth spot, are well placed to join the elite at Europe's top table next season after an impressive first half to the season.
They reached the midway stage with a 2-1 home win over struggling Wigan on Wednesday, and defender Phil Jagielka believes his team can carry on the good work during the second half of the campaign.
Although Everton are blessed with talented individuals such as South African midfielder Steven Pienaar and Croatia striker Nikica Jelavic, they have a thin squad compared to their rivals.
Yet Moyes' side have won their last two games without influential midfielder Marouane Fellaini, and Jagielka believes the Belgium international could struggle to earn an automatic recall after he serves the final leg of a three-match suspension against Chelsea.
“Felli has been a massive player for us for the first part of the season, but we've done okay while he's been suspended so far which really bodes well,” said England international Jagielka.
“The manager knows he has a couple of options he can try and they've worked in the last two games.
“Victor Anichebe has come in and give us that presence up there, Steven Naismith has done really well when he came on.
“Felli is a big talent and when we heard we were losing him for three games we knew it wouldn't be ideal - but at this rate he might struggle to get back in.” – Sapa-AFP