Benitez wants premium performance
Rafael Benitez has told his Chelsea side to approach tonight's Europa League last-32 first leg at Sparta Prague as if it is a Champions League fixture.
Chelsea won the Champions League in May, but, as holders, suffered the ignominy of exiting at the group stages and tumbling into the Europa League. Their first action in the competition comes in inauspicious surroundings at the Generali Arena on Thursday night, where the Blues have a point to prove and an upset to avoid.
"For them to play against the champions of Europe is massive, so we know that they will be ready," said Benitez, who was appointed interim boss after Roberto Di Matteo's dismissal following the Champions League exit.
He added: "And the main thing for us is to be sure that we are ready, that we analyse their team properly, so we have all the reports, and we give them the same information that we would give them in a Champions League game.
"At the beginning when you saw the draw, maybe some people would have said it is not a difficult draw. Not the case. "They have been training for a month for this game. Just thinking about this game. "It is a team that is well organised and has balance. It will not be easy.
"We have to focus on Prague. Sparta are a good team, a difficult team. We have the advantage of a second leg at home - but this is an important competition."
Chelsea ended a four-match winless run with a 4-1 defeat of Wigan in the Barclays Premier League last Saturday. There was speculation Benitez's spell as interim boss could be cut short due to a run of three wins in 10 matches prior to the Wigan victory.
This week is crucial, with Chelsea playing Brentford in an FA Cup fourth-round replay on Sunday. Benitez is optimistic, with more players now at his disposal.
"I was confident that with all the players around now I could make decisions more easily," Benitez said. "I can change games now. If you have defenders on the bench, or strikers, you can change things."
Fernando Torres is almost certain to start up front, given Demba Ba is ineligible and Victor Moses did not travel due to his participation in the African Nations Cup for Nigeria. David Luiz, who played in midfield against Wigan, is absent through suspension, but defender John Terry is set to return from a knee problem.