sport

Rafa ready for hot reception

Rafael Benitez has been bracing himself for a hot reception at Everton ahead of his first match on Merseyside as Chelsea boss.

Interim Blues manager Benitez will take a team to Goodison Park this weekend for the first time in more than three years but the passage of time is unlikely to spare him the role of pantomime villain.

The Spaniard is still suffering a backlash from his own club's fans, whose revolt against his appointment was galvanised by criticism they perceived him to have levelled at them while Anfield boss back in 2007.

That was also the year Benitez branded Everton one of the Premier League's "smaller teams", something that provoked a furious response from Liverpool's arch-rivals.

Everton fans devised plenty of unpleasant chants about Benitez during his six years at Anfield and he said: "I don't think they will be supporting me the whole time but the main thing for me is that my players do their job."

The Spaniard, who still lives on the Wirral near Liverpool, added: "I have a good relationship with people in the city and what I expect is to find a manager up there with a team who want to win."

Quizzed about his small-club jibe ahead of Sunday's game, Benitez joked: "You have a good memory."

He added of Everton: "I think they are doing a good job.

"They are doing well, they have less resources than other teams and are still competing.

"They are near the top of the table so credit to them."

Indeed, Everton lie only two points behind third-placed Chelsea ahead of Sunday's game and have looked genuine top-four contenders in the first half of the season.

They have lost only two league games - the joint best record in the top flight - and are one of only two clubs unbeaten at home.

They are also Chelsea's bogey-team, having won the sides' last three league meetings at Goodison Park.

Benitez, who has won on his last three league visits to the ground, said: "It is a good team and a tough game for sure. We have to be ready.

"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 will arrive there for what is their ninth and final game of a punishing December that has included a gruelling Club World Cup adventure in Japan.

Benitez has carefully rotated his squad since taking charge just over a month ago and asked if there were any tired legs, he said: "Always when you win, it's easy to say, 'No'.

"But, to be fair, it's not easy to 'keep' the players.

"I like to change players, to move players around.

"Because, if we don't manage the squad, they will be really tired.

"So, I think that it's important to change players."

Benitez's changes have yielded six wins in seven games, sparking reports Chelsea want to offer him the manager's job on a permanent basis.

The Spaniard is understood to have insisted on an interim appointment last month, rather than a performance-related contract with an option for a further year, possibly with a view to strengthening his bargaining position if all goes well.

The signs have certainly been good since Chelsea returned from their Club World Cup final defeat in Yokohama, with Benitez having vastly improved the balance of the team.

Their Boxing Day win at Norwich was only their second 1-0 victory of the season and the Spaniard said: "Would I sign for 1-0 five times?. I would say, 'Yes, no problem'."