(Adds Corinthians quotes)
By Stuart McDill
YOKOHAMA, Japan, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Chelsea interim manager Rafael Benitez praised the commitment of his players as the first holders to exit the Champions League at the group stage prepared for Sunday’s Club World Cup final against Corinthians.
”I’ve been really impressed with the mentality of the players,“ Benitez told reporters in Yokohama on Saturday. ”Also the commitment, the passion that they show.
“Every training session you can see they are keen to learn so all these positives are good for a manager thinking about the future.”
Chelsea took four games to record a victory under Benitez, who replaced the sacked Roberto Di Matteo, but have won their last three, scoring 12 goals in the process with five of them coming from a resurgent Fernando Torres.
“What we are trying to do is trying to keep this winning mentality and trying to keep this hunger in the players,” said Benitez, who won the Club World Cup with Inter Milan in 2010.
They will be favourites to beat South American champions Corinthians after the London side overpowered Mexico’s Monterrey 3-1 in Thursday’s semi-final.
Their Brazilian opponents, winners of the first Club World Cup in 2000, scraped past Egypt’s Al-Ahly 1-0 in Toyota.
Corinthians are expecting at least 15,000 travelling fans, many of whom have sold their cars and quit jobs to make the long trip.
To add to the pressure, European sides have won the last five editions of the Club World Cup, Manchester United the only English side to win it in 2008.
Brazilian defender David Luiz started in midfield in front of Frank Lampard, still feeling his way back from injury, in the semi-final.
“It’s only been a week since he returned,” Benitez, whose Liverpool side were runners-up in 2005, said of Chelsea veteran Lampard. “We have to take it one game at a time with him.”
Lampard, out of contract at the end of the season, said Chelsea’s players would not make the mistake of underestimating Corinthians.
“It’s obviously a cultural thing,” the England midfielder said of South America’s obsession with the Club World Cup.
”They probably watch on telly - Barcelona, the Premier League, Champions League - and don’t get the chance to pit their wits against us.
”We have got the strongest leagues in the world in Europe. I don’t think many can say anything against that.
“Brazil has that magical history of being such a footballing nation. That will bring some magic to the game on Sunday.”
Corinthians coach Tite was happy to assume the role of underdog.
”We expect a high-quality game,“ he said after training in bone-chilling Yokohama. ”We want to focus on the match, not the occasion so we can repay our fans for their terrific support.
“I can’t promise them that we will win and become world champions but I will promise we will do our best and do them proud.” (Writing by Alastair Himmer in Tokyo; Editing by John Mehaffey)