Benitez steels Chelsea for crunch
Rafael Benitez admits Chelsea are entering a crucial stage in their season as his side attempt to revive their fast fading Premier League title ambitions.
Benitez's side enter the Christmas programme in third place but that standing could be transformed by the time they face Aston Villa on Sunday.
By then, with Chelsea playing after their main rivals, they could be down to eighth and trail leaders Manchester United by 15 points if results go against them.
And the Blues' cause won't be helped by the continuing absence of injured skipper John Terry, who could miss all four festive games.
Last weekend's trip to the Club World Cup, where they lost 1-0 to Corinthians in the final, means Chelsea have played one game fewer than every other club in the top half of the table.
But having recorded just one win in eight league matches during a dismal two-month run, it is clear their campaign has lost momentum and they must embark on a winning streak if they are to stay in touch with the leaders.
The prospect of facing Villa seems more challenging than it would have done a week previously with Paul Lambert's side coming to Stamford Bridge on the back of an impressive 3-1 win at Liverpool and a six-game unbeaten run.
Benitez is aware of their threat, but insists his concerns lie only with his own side.
"Villa are doing well and it seems they are comfortable with the system, three at the back with wing backs, and they have good options in counter-attack because Christian Benteke is a good reference point," Benitez said.
"But our priority is our team and what we try to do. Obviously we analyse the other team too, but we want them to have to adapt to us more than us to them.
"This is a crucial time. It is important because there are a lot of points available."
Chelsea left Japan frustrated at their failure to return as world club champions but they responded well with a 5-1 win at Leeds in the League Cup quarter-finals less than 48 hours after arriving back from Asia.
"I was really worried before Leeds because I was not sleeping much, and I am sure some of the players were the same," Benitez said.
"A game two days after a long trip could be dangerous but it was fine, and I was really surprised and impressed with the performance, the way we played and the spirit we showed.
"The second half, even when winning 4-1 we were pushing and pressing, so I was pleased with the performance and fitness of the team."
Chelsea will be lifted by the return of Ramires and Gary Cahill from suspension, but Benitez admitted Terry could be out for a further two weeks with his continuing knee problem.
"It's one step forward, one step back," said Benitez. "The knee is quite complicated but at least he's now on the training pitch - that is positive news - but we cannot say, we cannot predict how long it will take."
Meanwhile, Lambert has reassured Villa supporters he has no plans to sell Benteke after the Belgian's impressive start to life in England.
Benteke has scored eight times since arriving from Genk for £7 million in late August and has already been linked with bigger clubs.
"There's no point in us even being here if it's a case of bringing people in and then letting them go. What's the point in that?" Lambert said.
"We're trying to build something here which can take a few years and you need good players with you to achieve that.
"There's no point in coming for half a season or a year and then you let them go. That's not the right way."