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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012

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It's a new day: Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez is slowly turning things around at Stamford Bridge. AP

Chelsea's sudden resurgence eases pressure on Benitez

AP

LONDON — Chelsea's free-scoring form is slowly chipping away at the enmity toward new manager Rafa Benitez from the club's fans.

The 8-0 demolition of Wigan on Sunday showcased Chelsea's attacking prowess, and dispelled some of the fears about the dour soccer Benitez could introduce after replacing Roberto Di Matteo at Stamford Bridge last month.

"There won't be one of our fans watching who didn't enjoy the performance and hopefully we can continue," Chelsea defender Gary Cahill said. "The manager said he is going to keep working hard and doing his best and as players that is what we try to do, and I am sure we will win people over with performances like that."

The club record-equaling league win on Sunday was secured despite being Chelsea's fifth match in 15 days, including a grueling Club World Cup trip to Japan that was followed by a 5-1 League Cup win at Leeds.

Now the team has another five games to negotiate in 15 days during the Christmas-New Year program, starting Wednesday at Norwich.

Norwich embarked on a 10-match unbeaten run after losing at Chelsea in October, including wins over Manchester United and Arsenal, but was beaten by West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.

Sitting third, Chelsea could be back in the title race if the resurgence continues. While seven points behind Manchester City and 11 adrift of Manchester United, Chelsea has a game in hand after beating Villa to end a stretch of more than two months without a home win in the league.

"We showed what we are capable of and it is just a matter of consistency now," Cahill said. "We have a lot of young players but on a day like Sunday you can really see the quality in the squad."

Most importantly for Chelsea, Fernando Torres has been rejuvenated under fellow Spaniard Benitez, who first brought him to England when he was in charge at Liverpool.

The striker has netted seven goals in his last six games — all under Benitez — having scored only seven in the opening four months of the season.

"As soon as he started scoring goals, he had confidence — and for a striker it is key," Benitez said. "The team is doing well so he has more chances."

David Luiz is another player who is thriving under Benitez. The Brazilian defender was among the seven goal scorers on Sunday and produced a vibrant display when he was redeployed from central defense to midfield.

Luiz scored from a free kick as he did in the two Champions League group stage wins over Nordsjaelland though the side failed to advance to the knockout portion of the competition.

"During training I try different things, different movements — it's a natural technique, I've not studied it," Luiz said. "When I was younger, I would always try to kick the ball like that and, when you become a more experienced player, you get more confidence to do it."

Chelsea's mission is to keep the confidence flowing through the team just as it did in the early weeks of the season when the Blues topped the standings.

The current leader, United, heads to Newcastle on Wednesday.

Newcastle, though, has won just two of its last 12 games and is 14th after finishing an impressive fifth last season and hasn't won at Old Trafford since 1972.

But United defender Jonny Evans remains wary of the power in the Newcastle strike forced provided by Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse.

"When the ball is floating around in the box, they beat people in the air," Evans said. "And their goal record is what got Newcastle to where they were last year."

United's lead over Manchester City was trimmed to just four points over the weekend.

City, which needed a stoppage-time goal from Gareth Barry to beat bottom-place Reading on Saturday, heads to Sunderland on Wednesday as the season reaches its halfway mark.

Boxing Day would usually see every Premier League team in action, but Arsenal's match against West Ham was postponed due to a strike by London Underground workers threatening to disrupt transport in the city.

Arsenal has a loose grip on the fourth Champions League qualification place, with Everton, Tottenham and West Brom only behind on goal difference as they prepare to face relegation-threatened teams.



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