Rafa Benitez will probably not be the manager of Chelsea next season but if he has any hopes of sticking around, winning the Europa League might be a good start.
The oddly tumultuous season of Chelsea continues today with a trip to the Czech Republic for their Round of 32 first leg match against Sparta Prague. No Chelsea supporter, and especially not Roman Abramovich, will be thrilled to see their team playing on Thursday rather than Tuesday or Wednesday, but sometimes as the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
So far the lemonade that Rafa Benitez has been mixing up has left a bad taste in the mouths of many Chelsea fans. He was a highly unlikeable figure before he became the interim manager and despite the fact that he's managed to keep the Blues in a Champions League spot in the league (albeit just barely), he's done little else to endear himself to the fans.
The Europa League provides potentially positive launching point for Benitez. If he can guide the Blues to a title perhaps he could win over some on the naysayers, but that seems unlikely. Given how low many people view the Europa League it wouldn't shock me if some Chelsea fans were quiety rooting for the team to fail just to help grease the rails for Rafa's exit.
Whatever the case may be, Chelsea travels to face Sparta Prague who will certainly not roll over for the Premier League side. We'll know real quickly how important this game is for Benitez and Chelsea when we see the lineups but my money is on Benitez resting players and hoping to get a positive result. After all, when it really comes down to it, being in next season's Champions League has to be the primary focus.
Sparta Prague injuries and suspensions
Out: Jiri Jarosik, Pavel Kaderabek, Tomas Prikryl. In doubt: None.
Chelsea injuries and suspensions
Demba Ba is ineligible having played in the Europa League this season for Newcastle. He'll be joined by David Luiz who is serving a suspension. Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel both just returned from the Africa Cup of Nations and will be rested. Sparta are without their captain Jiri Jarosik who played for Chelsea in the 2005/06 season.
Match Date/Time: 7 p.m. local, 1 p.m. ET
Venue: Generali Arena, Prague, Czech Republic
TV: FOX Soccer (U.S.), ESPN UK (U.K.)
Online: FOX Soccer 2 Go (U.S.)