sport

Rafa 'confident' of top-four spot

Rafael Benitez is optimistic of succeeding in his brief as interim Chelsea manager by securing Champions League football next season.

Third-placed Chelsea play Newcastle in the Premier League this weekend, bidding to improve on a run of three wins in nine matches in all competitions.

With Chelsea 13 points behind leaders Manchester United and six adrift of second-spotted Manchester City, Benitez has already conceded defeat in the title race. A top-four place and Champions League qualification is the priority and Benitez has history in promising such a finish.

In December 2009, the Spaniard insisted Liverpool would finish in the top four and Fernando Torres would be happy; they did not, placing seventh and he left Anfield. Torres departed the following January for Stamford Bridge.

Benitez says now that he had to make the guarantee in order to give confidence to his players, but he declined to deliver such a statement at Chelsea, instead proclaiming his belief that it would happen.

"At the moment I am confident we can do it," Benitez said. "We're in the top three at the moment, doing well.

"I have confidence that we have enough quality and, with the players coming back, we'll have enough options to manage the games, win more games in a row and be in the top four."

Given the fourth-placed Premier League side must negotiate a qualifying tie before advancing to the Champions League proper, a top-three place would be preferable, but Benitez is unconcerned where Chelsea finish, so long as it is in the qualifying places.

"We never play for being in top four; we always play for winning every single game and try to be as high as possible in the table," he said.

"If you are in the top four, you have to play a game and normally with the power and quality of your players, it (qualifying for the Champions League) is nearly guaranteed."

Under the Spaniard, Chelsea have amassed fewer points from 12 Premier League matches than under his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo, in the same number of games.

Draws with Brentford and Reading, who came from two goals down to claim a point on Wednesday, suggest Benitez's confidence might be misplaced.

Yet he was happy with the display at the Madejski Stadium, bar the late lapse which allowed Adam Le Fondre to score for a second time.

"It was a fantastic performance," Benitez said. "The team was in control and doing really well until this last minute.

"It is a lack of concentration for one minute. I don't think it's an issue. Hopefully we will not see it again the rest of the season."

Considering he did not have a pre-season in which to get his methods and tactics across and that Chelsea have had two games a week since his November appointment, Benitez is content.

He believes the imminent returns of goalkeeper Petr Cech, defender John Terry - both of whom are in line to start at St James' Park - suspended forward Eden Hazard, Nigeria duo John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses and the possible return of David Luiz (calf) following next week's international break, will aid Chelsea's cause.

"Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we'll have everybody," he said.

"We'll have more competition and it will be better for the team.

"I'm really pleased with the effort and with the application of these players.

"We're doing a lot of things in a very, very good way, because we control the games.

"To go to the next level of understanding we will need time working with them and we will need training sessions."

Benitez will spend some time with his family during next week's international break, a brief hiatus he believes can benefit Chelsea's playing staff.

"If you change the environment, it's good," he said. "If they score goals, if they play well and they win, they will be happier.

"If they lose they will have an opportunity to change things here."

Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole is poised to win his 100th England cap in next week's friendly with Brazil at Wembley.

Cole has had moments of controversy during his career, but Benitez offered only praise.

"He's a great player, he's doing really well for us and hopefully he can do well for England for a long, long time," Benitez said.