Rafael Ben├¡tez and his Chelsea team travelled to the North East on Tuesday night ahead of Wednesday eveningÔÇÖs FA Cup fifth-round tie against Middlesbrough with the manager claiming that the squad are right behind him.
Recent occupants of the Stamford Bridge ejector seat might advise Ben├¡tez to keep the players where he can see them, but the manager used his pre-match press conference to try to defuse suggestions of a rift.
The Chelsea dressing room has done for managers in the past, most recently Andre Villas-Boas, sacked 51 weeks ago, and Luiz Felipe Scolari before him.
Having been installed as only an interim manager, Ben├¡tez does not even have the cover of Roman AbramovichÔÇÖs unequivocal support to strengthen his hand in a wilful group, but the Spaniard said his players are onside.
ÔÇ£I can guarantee the players know what weÔÇÖre trying to do and believe in what weÔÇÖre trying to do, 100 per cent,ÔÇØ he said. ÔÇ£The players are fully behind our ideas. I can guarantee that.ÔÇØ
The players might be committed but that does not mean they always like what they hear. Ben├¡tez conceded that MondayÔÇÖs training session had begun with a brisk exchange of views with the squad and club captain John Terry following the 2-0 defeat at Manchester City, but said it was a ÔÇ£normalÔÇØ event rather than a row.
ÔÇ£It was a normal meeting between players and technical staff, as after every game. You can see it all around the world, after every game, you exchange your opinions. ItÔÇÖs normal.
ÔÇ£Especially after a defeat, disappointment is normal. I can understand the frustration of Terry, an important player for us whoÔÇÖs trying to help and push because he wants to win, but he has been injured for 16 weeks and has had problems with his knee.ÔÇØ
It is understood that the discussion began with Ben├¡tez telling the club he thought their display at the Etihad was flat and that the team lacked focus. Terry is thought to have raised the issue of the intensity of training sessions run by Ben├¡tez.
The Spaniard explained that with Chelsea playing every three days and having clocked up more games than any other side in Europe so far this season, they could tolerate only moderate sessions.
Frank Lampard, substituted after missing a penalty on Sunday, is then understood to have intervened, pointing out that Chelsea won the European Cup with the same squad.
While the debate is evidence of Ben├¡tez doing his job rather than of a squad in mutiny, it is indicative of the tensions that run deep at Chelsea, and the huge challenge facing the Spaniard as he tries to keep the group focused on the top-four finish that is their priority.
Ben├¡tez is increasingly resigned to his tenure at Chelsea ending in May ÔÇô assuming he gets that far ÔÇö and wants to demonstrate he has left a marked improvement on a squad that could only finish sixth last season.
ÔÇ£I am here to be in the top three, and do my best in every competition,ÔÇØ he said. ÔÇ£That is it. I talk with the players every day and theyÔÇÖre really pleased and know what weÔÇÖre trying to do every game. Sometimes weÔÇÖre doing better or worse, but normally weÔÇÖre scoring goals and conceding less than before. We have a better balance, but we can still improve.ÔÇØ
There will of course be no European Cup this season, and the FA Cup and Europa League games that will divert his side in the next fortnight are arguably a distraction. But to ensure he hits AbramovichÔÇÖs target of a Champions League place he will need the likes of Terry and Lampard on side, even if he cannot guarantee them a place.
TerryÔÇÖs position is the most intriguing. The defender has a specialised training regime to try to help his recovery but he is still not able to complete every session. Even if fit, it is far from certain that Ben├¡tez will pick him. He may play against Middlesbrough in the absence of the ill Gary Cahill, but could drop out for the more important league game against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
Ben├¡tez says the players are smart enough to know that their reputations are at stake too. ÔÇ£They are clever enough and realise they will be here with long contracts, so they have to perform and be ready if they want to stay at the maximum level.ÔÇØ
And will he be around to keep them there? ÔÇ£I will be working hard until the end. The players know how hard we are working. ThatÔÇÖs the main thing.ÔÇØ
Team details (probable)
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Bertrand; Mikel, Lampard; Moses, Oscar, Hazard; Torres.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Steele; Bikey, Williams, McManus, Friend; Carayol, Leadbitter, Dyer, Hailliday; McDonald, Main.