By Toby Davis
LONDON (Reuters) - After another weekend of cutting criticism, Chelsea's stop-gap manager Rafa Benitez achieved a measure of vindication with Monday's FA Cup victory over Manchester United.
Pilloried for resting players for Saturday's 2-1 Premier League defeat at Southampton, Chelsea's interim coach put all his Easter weekend eggs in one basket by gambling on a refreshed squad being able to book a spot in the semi-finals of the Cup.
Thanks to Demba Ba's stunning volley and Petr Cech's astonishing save from Javier Hernandez, Chelsea pulled off a 1-0 win in the quarter-final replay to leave two trophies hovering tantalisingly on the horizon.
With two words almost perfectly designed to provoke debate among Chelsea's fractious fan base, Benitez declared they were in the midst of a "great season".
While the Spaniard's critics will point to their inconsistent league form that has left them in a three-way battle for two Champions League qualifying spots, Benitez has some justification.
They remain in the Premier League's coveted top four, will play an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City with either Wigan Athletic or Millwall awaiting the victors, and have a winnable Europa League quarter-final against Rubin Kazan to come.
Not bad for a club that has spent much of the season tearing itself apart from inside, with fans protesting on the terraces and a pall of gloom hovering over Stamford Bridge like the persistent English winter.
What would London rivals Arsenal, without a trophy since 2005, give to be in their position?
Even Benitez's most vocal critics, of which there are many, would have been hard pushed to blame the former Liverpool boss for responding to an astonishing fixture pile-up by prioritising a cup tie that oozed glamour and potential for silverware.
Having played Southampton and United within 48 hours of each other, Chelsea are now set to embark on a run of five matches in 13 days.
It is likely to be an almost impossible juggling act for a manager whose every team sheet is scrutinised by fans who have called for his head since he walked through the door to replace terrace favourite Roberto Di Matteo.
In defending his squad rotation policy, Benitez, who made seven changes against United, called for balance.
It is an appeal that is likely to be in vain given their battle with Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal for Champions League qualification is likely to go to the wire.
"Before the international break we played against United, Steaua Bucharest and West Ham," he said. "We were the best in the world. We lost against Southampton and we're the worst in the world.
"You have to have balance. We only had 48 hours between games and don't have a long (deep) squad. We had to approach Southampton in a different way because of the players we had on the pitch.
"These were skilful players with talent and ability. You cannot kill players by playing them two games in a row in that time. Sometimes, for you, a strong team is something different to what I pick."
STRUGGLE TO SPIN
Benitez's task is all the more difficult given he will not be able to call on England defenders Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill for their gruelling programme.
Cole limped off with a hamstring injury in the first half of the United clash and Cahill was already ruled out for two weeks because of a knee injury.
Benitez maintains the top four is his priority but having already made clear he will be quitting Stamford Bridge at the end of the season, he would be forgiven for eyeing some silverware to further gild his already impressive CV.
Chelsea are just one match away from their fifth FA Cup final in seven seasons, having lifted the trophy in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012.
They are now unbeaten in 29 FA Cup games, excluding their penalty shootout defeat to Everton in 2011. It is the longest unbeaten run ever by a team in the competition.
The Champions League is now so vital to clubs of Chelsea's stature, that no matter what they win, Benitez would struggle to spin his spell at the club as a success if he failed to stay in the top four.
But a top-four finish with a side that trailed in sixth last season, allied to a trophy or maybe two would surely appease even those fans whose abusive chants and banners have hounded Benitez since he took the job in November.
(Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Patrick Johnston)