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Benítez and Sarri salute each other before meeting on the battlefield this weekend

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Morituri te salutant

Cardiff City v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Maurizio Sarri and Rafa Benítez have a fair bit of direct and indirect history, with the former following the latter at two different clubs now, Napoli and Chelsea. They’ve also met twice before on the football battlefield, as managers of Empoli and Napoli, respectively, Sarri winning once, 4-2, and drawing 2-2 in the reverse fixture.

Such shared history can often lead to friction and underhanded jibes, but Maurizio and Rafa only have nice words for each other, even when directly following one another.

“I have to say thank you to Rafa. When I arrived in Naples I had the feeling that the team was almost ready to play my football. If I arrived after another coach it may have been more difficult for me. I have to say thank you to him. He’s a very good coach.

-Maurizio Sarri; source: Football.london

Rafa’s side of this story? Cloyingly, the same.

“We did what we had to do. He did well, played good football and they had a very good group of players. We were an offensive team in Italy playing well, and he received this group and he carried on working with them and was doing well.”

-Rafa Benítez; source: Daily Mirror

Perhaps it’s just the passage of time that makes both of them look back respectfully? Nope, the good manners continue even as attention turns to this weekend. (Maybe we’re just jaded; can’t we have some drama please??)

Maurizio, perhaps knowing Chelsea’s recent terrible history at St. James’ — wherein no first-team player has ever experienced a win there in Chelsea colors — expects the winless Magpies to pose a tough test.

“On Sunday it will be very difficult for us. We know that our opponents are very dangerous. Chelsea lost 3-0 there last season but Manchester United and Arsenal also lost there. We know that on Sunday it will be a difficult game for us.”

-Maurizio Sarri; source: Football.london

For Rafa, the praise goes even higher, putting Sarri’s Chelsea in the same category as the two teams head and shoulders above everyone else, Manchester City and Liverpool.

“Maybe at the moment, there are three teams that you could say that they are a little bit ahead of the others, for me - Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City - because of the level, the performances last year and the money they spent.

”Then Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, they have to go back to things they were doing well. They have quality in the squad and they can compete, for sure. But if you have to pick three, I will pick these. They have enough quality to do well.”

-Rafa Benítez; source: Daily Mirror

As nice as that is from the former Chelsea interim manager — regardless of whether he truly means it or is just saying it to say something banal and easily palatable with no room for any media shenanigans — we should remember that Chelsea are very much a work in progress. Sarri himself doesn’t expect full functionality for another 2-3 months.

That’s the reality check. But we should still expect three points on Sunday. Newcastle have yet to click in attack, which should be helpful for Chelsea, who have shown defensive vulnerabilities aplenty. Meanwhile, we should be expecting an hour out of both Eden Hazard and Mateo Kovačić, two players who will have to have big years for the Blues to be in contention for trophies.

So best get all this back-slapping out of the way now. No time for such niceties after the pre-match handshakes.