Chelsea's remarkably busy 69-game season ends on Sunday against Everton (Fox Soccer Plus, 11 a.m. ET), and you could forgive Chelsea interim manager Rafa Benítez if he'd decided to take a short nap on the couch late Friday afternoon after winning the Europa League title on Wednesday and ensuring that Chelsea will finish in the Premier League top four to qualify for next season's Champions League.
Instead, Benítez joined me for a lengthy interview via Skype from Chelsea's training headquarters outside London. The season isn't done quite yet -- Chelsea needs to win at home on Sunday to assure a third-place finish and avoid the Champions League qualifying playoff that would come with fourth place. And there remains the outside chance of a third-place playoff with Arsenal if Chelsea and Everton tie 0-0 and Arsenal wins 2-1 at Newcastle. (In that case, Chelsea and Arsenal would finish dead-even on points, goal-differential and goals scored.)
Barring that unlikely circumstance, Chelsea and Benítez will come to the U.S. this week for friendlies against Manchester City on Thursday (in St. Louis) and Saturday (in New York). They will be Benítez's last games with Chelsea, he is nevertheless set to part company with CFC on a high note.
Benítez happens to be a terrific interview subject, a guy who packs a lot of good stuff into what he says. During our conversation, he touched on a number of topics, including his views on Chelsea's season, the changes he brought to the club, where he wants to work next, the negative response to him from some Chelsea fans, and his takes on everything from his favored zonal marking to players like Fernando Torres, David Luiz, Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard:
SI.com: Congratulations on finishing up the season well. I know it hasn't always been easy at Chelsea this year, but to leave with a Europa League title and clinching a berth for Chelsea in next year's Champions League has to be gratifying.
Benítez: If you know the circumstances, it was a transition with young players. Consider that [Didier] Drogba, [Raul] Meireles, [Salomon] Kalou, [Michael] Essien and [Florent] Malouda had left, so you had new players like Oscar, Hazard, [Marko] Marin and [Victor] Moses. Good players, but still young, new players in the Premier League. Another thing is this season you had so many competitions and playing two games a week since November: it's 69 games we will play. So you can't do what you want to do. When you train during the week, you try to do your tactics and your patterns and set-pieces, and you can't. You can do a little bit the day after and the day before a game.
So I'm really pleased. We scored some good goals, things we'd do in training sessions. The corner in the last minute [that led to Branislav Ivanovic's Europa League-winning goal] is something we were practicing, so you're happy with these things. It's great, but it's still not ideal. Not when you want to impose your way to do things. But you have to manage the season.
SI.com: Few managers have had to deal with some of the things you've faced this season, including the negative response from some of the Chelsea fans and some of the media there. How difficult has that been?
Benítez: It's not as bad as people think. In terms of the atmosphere at the training ground, it's quite good. The players, the staff, everybody has been good professionals. The media, especially some newspapers, and a group of fans, they try to create more problems than the reality is. So you can't deny sometimes during the season it was quite difficult, but you have to concentrate on your job, try to be professional and believe in your staff and the people working with you. In the end, we achieved the target that we had.
SI.com: When you arrived at Chelsea last November, replacing Roberto Di Matteo, what were some of the things you discovered about how training took place, and what sort of changes did you implement?
Benítez: The main thing we could see at the beginning was the same players were playing almost every game. So it was too many games and a short squad, and Roberto was using maybe 13, 14 players, no more. We realized quickly it would be impossible to carry on in this way until the end of the season. We started rotating players and giving more opportunities to Moses and at the beginning Marin, and obviously [César] Azpilicueta, Luiz in a different position. We were trying to manage the squad. We had [John] Terry and [Frank] Lampard injured at the beginning, so we had to manage carefully the players available.
Also, we changed the strength program that Fernando Torres had. He was going to the gym with [Chelsea fitness coach] Paco de Miguel. You can see that he's sharper, faster and stronger now, and that's a very important part of his game. In training sessions: more tactics. They used to train in smaller spaces all the time. We like to do this but also do the tactics on a normal pitch because the distances and the movements are different. I think that was a difference between the methods of Roberto and ours.
SI.com: These are not small changes.
Benítez: We changed some things, but we tried to keep the good things they had. They were training with intensity in smaller spaces and we were trying to do the same, but at the same time we had to do the tactics, had to give more balance to the team. In terms of tactics, you'd see the team continue scoring goals, but we conceded fewer goals, so we had more balance and were winning more games. Other teams had fewer chances, fewer shots. That was key.
SI.com: You decided to try David Luiz as a central midfielder. How did that decision come about?
Benítez: I knew him from his time with Benfica, where he played as a midfielder, left fullback, right fullback, every position. And also I had some players who were playing with him on the [Brazilian] national team, so I was asking questions about him. Everything was quite positive. Coming here, talking with him, I could see his understanding of the game was good. Tactically, he liked to learn and improve. Then I decided [central midfield] could be a good option. Obviously, he's a player with quality. He can use both feet, he's good in the air, he has pace.
The main worry was his stamina, because he used to play as a center back. Then we played him [in the midfield] against Monterrey in the FIFA Club World Cup, and he couldn't play two games in a row at that time. He liked to cover too much space, so that was a time we needed to decide. He couldn't play three, four games in a row at this position, but he was a key player for us. At that time we had Terry, [Gary] Cahill and Ivanovic at center back, and we could use [Luiz] as a midfielder when [John] Obi Mikel was at the Africa Cup of Nations. It was an interesting position, but he needed to adapt to it, especially physically, because it was too demanding for him.
SI.com: There are several other young, exciting players on this Chelsea squad. What would you say about your work with Juan Mata, Oscar and Hazard?
Benítez: At the beginning it wasn't easy, because they are offensive players, the three of them, and they like to play as a number 10, like to go inside. So we didn't have the balance in the wide areas. We were attacking through the middle too much, making it easier for teams to stop us at the edge of the box. So we had to move them to the wide areas and give them some specific instructions on when they could go inside. So we gave them some freedom but at the same time the tactical knowledge that they needed to use to keep their position and keep the [opposing] fullbacks busy.
Mata is a proper number 10. He has mobility, so he has to play in the middle. And we could play Oscar and Hazard [wide], because they have more ability and more pace in 1-v-1 situations and they could make the difference in the wide areas. But also going inside, they could be a surprise and give space for [fullbacks] Ashley Cole or Azpilicueta to go forward.
SI.com: You mentioned Fernando Torres briefly. Where do you think he is in his career right now at age 29? Is he still in a position where could be a very influential player?
Benítez: I think he can be good. I'm not sure he will be at the same level that he was when he was at Liverpool with us. But he's improving his fitness. He has been working so hard in the gym, and his pace is nearly there. He's very strong. So he can beat defenders running, and now it's just confidence. He has to find the timing for his runs and the right movements, and he will be much better. How good? Can he be at the same level [as in the past]? I'm not sure. It depends on a proper preseason, training with the team, doing a lot of the things that he was doing this year. We'll see how he feels at the beginning of next season.
SI.com: You're still not set up with a managing job for next season. Do you want to be working with a new team starting next season?
Benítez: Yeah. The main thing for me is if I can find a club with one of two different options. One is a top side where you can go straight to and compete for honors and trophies. Or maybe a project, something that you can develop like we did with Liverpool -- so going there and starting to build a team that can challenge for the Premier League or Champions League or whatever. Both options are interesting for me. We'll have to wait and see what happens.
SI.com: Are there any specific clubs or countries where you would be interested in working?
Benítez: The priority is England, because my family is living here. But we know if we have to move abroad, we have to do it. There are not too many top sides. When I finished with Inter Milan, I was suspecting a top side will come. We won the Club World Cup, the Italian Super Cup, so someone will come. But there were not too many top sides available. I had three or four offers from different countries, but not the top sides you were expecting. In the end it was too long [between jobs]. Once we know we have a good project, we have to start working from Day One if we can. The kind of manager I am, I'm methodical, and I'd like to start working with my players as soon as possible.
SI.com: You've always been a strong proponent of zonal marking. You've been criticized in some places for that, and yet more and more teams now use zonal marking. Do you feel a sense of vindication?
Benítez: No, not really. If you see the stats of Liverpool when we were there, in two of the six years we were the best team conceding fewer goals on corners than anyone. On the TV you can see a goal -- "Zonal marking, oh, a free header! It's the system!" -- but you can see a lot of goals every single day on the highlights when it was man-to-man marking. Just to beat one player is very easy. When you talk about man-to-man, it's very easy for the manager to say it's your responsibility, and that's it.
When you talk about zonal marking, in reality you as a manager take responsibility. You have to explain what to do and how they will do it. If you see the goal from the [Europa League] final the other day, Benfica were doing zonal marking. And we attacked this system in the way I know you can attack the system. It's not so simple. It's not just zonal defending, it's how you do it. You can use three players in the first line, or four, or seven. It's a big difference. But obviously if you do it well, it's a good system for defending.
SI.com: Moving our scope out even farther, I know you follow soccer all over Europe. I'd like to hear your opinion on the remarkable success of the Spanish national team, which continues winning titles like the Euro and the World Cup. What is the key to that?
Benítez: The coaching. The coaching in the Spanish youth system. In Spain you have the regions like Castilla, Catalonia, Andalusia, all these regions have their own teams, and the coaches are connected with the Spanish [federation] coaches. So in the end they share the information, the way they coach is similar, and the players have progression from the regional team to the national team, doing more or less the same things with the same system with the same style of football. So there's continuity.
Also, on the teams in Spain the coaches are quite good. So you can see the players are really good tactically and technically. If you want to improve them, they can understand quickly what you are trying to do. I think it's a lot of things together. Also it's true that the generation of players from Barcelona -- Xavi, [Andrés] Iniesta, [Gerard] Piqué, [Carles] Puyol -- they go to the national team together along with [David] Silva, Mata and other players with a lot of quality.
SI.com: So now that you have almost finished up at Chelsea, do you feel that you made the right decision in going there?
Benítez: Yeah, I think so, in terms of the challenge for me. I had offers -- three or four offers this time, and I was waiting for a job. But I said I would like to manage a top side where you could compete for trophies. If you saw the game against Corinthians [in the Club World Cup final, a 1-0 Corinthians victory], we had four chances to win the game. Afterward we had the same situation in the FA Cup [semifinal] with Manchester City when we were coming back and we were pushing. In the Capital One Cup we had the two individual mistakes that cost us the first game [against Swansea]. But we were very close to winning the trophies.
[In the league], we had Liverpool and Reading when we were winning the game late, and in the end we drew. That could have been a big difference, and then we could finish second. The balance for me is quite positive. It was a great experience, and we achieved the targets [of qualifying for the Champions League and winning the Europa League title].