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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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].