Rafa Benitez: Can Chelsea Boss Guide the Blues to a Title Challenge?

Karl MatchettFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2012

NORWICH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  Rafael Benitez of Chelsea looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Chelsea at Carrow Road on December 26, 2012 in Norwich, England.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Chelsea beat Norwich City 1-0 at Carrow Road to move two points clear of fourth place with one game in hand, with manager Rafael Benitez proclaiming his side to be ready to mount a title challenge.

Juan Mata scored the only goal of the game as the Spanish attacker again showed his quality as one of the most in-form players of the Premier League: a fine strike from range which proved valuable enough to take all three points.

The scale of the difficulty and importance of the win should first be put into perspective.

Prior to defeat in their last match against West Brom, Norwich went 10 Premiership games unbeaten since a loss back in October, also against Chelsea.

With three wins in three since Chelsea returned from the Club World Cup the Blues are certainly in a rich vein of form, and with only four points separating themselves in third place from Manchester City above them—and a game in hand over City—is it time Chelsea were acknowledged as a genuine threat for the title this season?

Common opinion has the top two places sewn up already with the two Manchester clubs battling it out for the title, but Rafa Benitez has at his disposal a collection of vastly talented players who perhaps needed more direction and tactical organisation.

There are few managers better at that than Benitez.

Utilising a solid 4-2-3-1 system the Spanish manager has harnessed the attacking creativity of the likes of Eden Hazard and Mata with a greater reliability and work rate in certain areas of the team, with Victor Moses coming in for increased game time recently and Ramires a key player in central midfield.

The switch of David Luiz into a midfield role recently has not only freed the Brazilian to express himself and show off a great range of passing and vision, but has also helped Chelsea be somewhat more dependable in defence.

Even without John Terry.

The Blues' next Premiership fixtures see them have a tricky away game at Everton followed by a very busy January against QPR, Stoke City, Arsenal and Reading. They also have three domestic cup matches to fit in during the month.

Should Fernando Torres and Juan Mata still be scoring goals at the end of that month, perhaps a new addition or two joining the club and the gap between second and third continuing to reduce it will surely be seen that Benitez has turned the team into real contenders.

Such a progression will inevitably lead to two further interesting questions: does owner Roman Abramovich then feel obliged to hand him a longer term contract?

And do the Chelsea fans begin to accept him as "their" manager, or will they feel that the success of the team has little to do with his methods?

Certain players might have some contractual issues to work out along with potential signings arriving at the club, with the futures of Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard as yet unresolved. Lampard in particular is certainly not being missed from the first team at present with Luiz and Ramires forging an interesting-looking partnership in the middle.

Benitez has a lot of work to do over the next four weeks and how well he and his team come through that period might go a long way to determining not only his future, but that of the Premier League trophy.