Manchester, United Kingdom: Chelsea interim coach Rafael Benitez concedes that his team face a difficult task to finish in the top four of the Premier League after their poor performance in the 2-0 loss at Manchester City on Sunday.
Chelsea still retain an interest in both the Europa League and FA Cup, with a re-arranged fifth-round tie at Championship club Middlesbrough looming on Wednesday in the latter.
But with a top-four finish being required to ensure that Chelsea secure a coveted place in next season’s Champions League, Benitez admitted that his team wasted a glorious opportunity to move within a point of second-place City.
“Obviously we knew we were close to City and wanted to be even closer,” said Benitez. “But we didn’t do it.
“We have to try to carry on winning our games and hopefully, if City can lose some points, we will get closer. But, if not, we have to do our job because Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton are all close.
“We’re in a position where we have to fight for the top four.”
After defeat at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Chelsea only hold a one-point advantage over Tottenham Hotspur, who are scheduled to play their game in hand over Benitez’s side at West Ham United on Monday night.
Fifth-placed Arsenal only trail the reigning European champions by two points and even Everton, down in sixth, are only seven points behind Chelsea with 11 games remaining in the league campaign.
More worrying still, Benitez admitted that he is facing a constant battle to juggle his resources in order to continue a fight on three different fronts.
“We knew it could be like this,” he said. “We changed five players from [the last game against] Sparta Prague. If we have to change players, we will do it.
“It is a question of managing the squad and using fresh legs every game. We have to show our quality in all the competitions.
“I will tell you in one or two weeks whether tiredness is an issue. I think we still have the energy and players coming back from injury and the African Nations, and we can use them.”
City prevailed through second-half goals from Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez, but only after Joe Hart had made a superb save from a Frank Lampard penalty, awarded after the goalkeeper himself hauled down Chelsea’s Demba Ba.
The England goalkeeper was lucky to escape a caution, with the Chelsea bench appealing at the time for Hart to be shown red.
“It should have been at least a yellow card,” said Benitez.
“You can argue that he was going in a direction away from goal, but it’s still a clear chance and at least a yellow card.”
Roberto Mancini, the City manager, could afford a joke about Hart’s lucky escape, saying sarcastically: “With him being our player, yes, it was possible he could have been sent off.”
But the City manager knew that he owed the goalkeeper much for his outstanding penalty stop.
“I tell him when he is at fault,” said Mancini.
“And we can’t concede a penalty like this, from a kick 45 metres out. Kolo [Toure] and Joe both made a mistake. But, after that, he was fantastic.”
Mancini still has problems of his own, with his side trailing league leaders Manchester United by 12 points, but the Italian insists his team can still push their local rivals.
“For us now it’s not important to look at the table, only to continue to work like today, play well and improve,” he said.
“And then maybe look at the table in one month or 40 days. Maybe 15 points is too many but I think football is finished when it’s finished - the last minute of the last game.
“If we arrive with four games to go and United are 12 points ahead, it’s finished. But I think that our job is to continue to work.”