London: Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez played down the argument between Frank Lampard and David Luiz in Thursday's Europa League match at Rubin Kazan, an incident that hinted at internal discord heading into the season's climax. With an FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City to come on Sunday and the fight for Champions League qualification hotting up, Benitez refused to question his players' passion for the cause and said it was a good thing to see them arguing on the pitch.
Chelsea became England's last remaining representatives in Europe when they moved into the semi-finals of the Europa League despite a 3-2 defeat on the night as Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United both stumbled out. But their 5-4 aggregate win in Russia was marked by a heated exchange between Lampard and Luiz as the sides left the field at halftime with the argument played out in front of TV cameras.
Lampard pointed accusingly at Luiz with the Brazil international taking exception and reacting angrily as the players trudged towards the tunnel. It was left to goalkeeper Petr Cech and playmaker Yossi Benayoun to play peacemakers, pushing their team mates apart. Benitez was adamant that nothing sinister was behind the confrontation and the players were simply voicing their opinions.
"It's always good to have players arguing about things that happen on the pitch so you can correct these things at half-time. We were talking about that, adjusting positions, so it's fine. Not a problem," Benitez said.
Chelsea never looked in any real danger of exiting the competition but the defensive issues that enabled Rubin to come out on top on the night gave the Spanish coach cause for concern ahead of Sunday's FA Cup clash with City. With centre back Gary Cahill and left back Ashley Cole out injured and Branislav Ivanovic left on the bench, the Russian outfit breached Chelsea's rearguard twice with simple crosses from the flanks.
"I'm disappointed because we didn't defend well in the second half but we go through and I'm really pleased with the team and the effort, the players gave everything on the pitch. I'm happy with the first half, but we have to improve on the second half, not just the defenders but the whole team. We have to deal with crosses better, but you have to give credit to them as well because they have some players with quality," Benitez said.
While Chelsea reached their third semi-final of the season, not including the Club World Cup, Tottenham Hotspur, one of their principal rivals for Champions League qualification, can now focus exclusively on the fight for the top four.
After the second leg of their quarter-final against Swiss side Basel ended in a 4-4 aggregate draw, they were dumped out on penalties after 120 minutes of gruelling action. Their manager Andre Villas-Boas hailed his team as "heroes", but the club's former chairman Alan Sugar called for his head. The television personality pointed the finger at unsuccessful penalty takers Tom Huddlestone and Emmanuel Adebayor.
"AVB should be fired," he said on Twitter, borrowing a catchphrase from his own show "The Apprentice". No tactics. Been lucky up till now with results. How can he put Huddlestone as pen taker. Then Adebayor you knew would miss."
Newcastle United joined Tottenham on the competition's scrapheap after drawing 1-1 with Portuguese side Benfica, having lost the first leg 3-1. Bullish in defeat, Newcastle boss Alan Pardew targeted a top-10 Premier League finish next season.
"Our league form has been really affected but we have grown into it and the experience will stand us in good stead for the future," he said.