Benitez looks to wrap up part 1 of Chelsea mission
MANCHESTER, England (AP) -Rafa Benitez can virtually wrap up part one of his mission at Chelsea by guiding the team to the cusp of the Champions League with a win over top-four rival Tottenham in the Premier League on Wednesday.
The Spaniard is still unloved at Stamford Bridge but even the most ardent critic of Benitez must be impressed with the job he's done in his six months at the club.
By reaching the final of the Europa League, Benitez is close to winning the trophy he so craves to mark his brief spell at Chelsea. And beating fifth-place Spurs would all but secure a return to Europe's top competition, which was the club's priority this season. A win would put Chelsea six points clear of its London rival - and with a vastly superior goal difference - with two games left.
`We will try to win because we know it will guarantee a top-four finish,'' Benitez said after Sunday's 1-0 win at Manchester United. "Winning is crucial for us - it's even more important for them (Tottenham), so there will be a great atmosphere at Stamford Bridge.''
Climbing to second place may be a step too far for Chelsea, however, especially if Manchester City beat West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday to cement the runner-up spot behind already-crowned champion Manchester United. City is four points clear of Chelsea with three games left.
The tension is building at the other end of the standings, too, with Wigan able to climb out of the relegation zone by beating Swansea in Tuesday's other game.
Wigan has proved to be the Premier League's perennial escapologist, having survived the drop on the season's final day in three of the past six years. With such experience of relegation scraps, Roberto Martinez could be the calmest manager around over the next fortnight.
"We don't just escape. As a football club we win the title every time we stay in the league,'' Martinez said. "It's a different approach. Any other club fights to avoid something or fears to lose something; we don't.
"We don't fight to avoid relegation. It's not a negative - it's the opposite.''
Moving out of the bottom three - and being replaced by one of the northeast clubs, Newcastle or Sunderland - would be the perfect tonic for Wigan ahead of its FA Cup final against Man City on Saturday.
If Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas is to have any chance of victory on his first return to Chelsea since his firing 14 months ago, then he will need Gareth Bale to maintain his sensational run of form that is virtually carrying Spurs at the end of the season.
The Wales winger grabbed a late winner against Southampton on Saturday, taking his tally for the campaign to 20 goals, and he has scored in Tottenham's last four league games. No wonder he was named England's Player of the Year and football writers' Player of the Year last week.
"We will have to watch one of the best players in the world,'' Chelsea playmaker Juan Mata said of Bale. "He is in an amazing shape and proves to be a decisive player for Spurs almost every week.''
Mata has proved to be Chelsea's answer to Bale this season. The Spain international was arguably the best player on the pitch against United on Sunday - it was his shot that deflected in off Phil Jones for the crucial late goal - and is going strong even though he has played 62 games for club and country this season. This on the back of featuring for Spain in the Olympic football tournament last summer.
"He could be Player of the Year for what he's done for us, scoring goals and giving assists,'' said Benitez, who could welcome back Eden Hazard from a calf problem for the Spurs match.
For Spurs, even a draw may not be good enough as it would leave them a point behind fourth-place Arsenal with two games left. Arsenal then has its destiny in its own hands with matches against Wigan and Newcastle remaining.
"It will be extremely difficult, but if we achieve these nine points (from the three remaining games), we will be enjoying Champions League football next season,'' Villas-Boas said. "That is our aim, but we understand that other teams are improving and it will probably go down to the wire.''
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