Chelsea FC play hosts to Napoli today in the second leg of their Champions League tie. Though they go into the match down two goals on aggregate (3-1), the Blues will overcome the deficit to advance to the quarterfinals.
Roberto Di Matteo has the team getting the results it failed to under former boss Andre Villas-Boas. It may only have been two games and not exactly the prettiest of wins, but they were wins nonetheless, earning back-to-back victories for the first time since January.
At this level of the game results are all that matter. Di Matteo, in an interim role, is putting out lineups and making substitutions that give his team the best chance to win in the moment. For a squad that is aging fast and responsible for Villas-Boas’ sacking, it is time for the players to step up and prove they were worth the bold move.
I have little doubt they will come through, and here are four reasons why.
Villas-Boas may have had in mind a plan to reinvent Chelsea as a club, but he failed to realize the incredibly short shelf life of a Premier League manager.
With social media, digital content and the ability for fans to express their emotions at an instantaneous rate, there is no possibility of developing a plan for three years from now without addressing the present.
Di Matteo may have advantage in this regard as he knows his role as manager is only through May. The final game of the season will conclude his tenure. With that in mind, he is making moves that are only interested in what will get the best result now.
His decision to sit Juan Mata against Stoke to give him rest ahead of today’s match took into account the enormity of contest. However, as soon as Stoke went down to 10 men, he called for Mata to get on the pitch, realizing that in that moment Mata gives them the best chance to win.
Today’s lineup has not yet been announced, but it will surely reflect the same kind of mentality. Every player out there will be one that fits the aim of Di Matteo’s goal, which is to get two goals without conceding.
He will not care to run a formation that he hopes to instill with some kind of regularity. If he thinks a 4-2-3-1 would be the best way to play, he will put in the pieces to make it happen. If he prefers two strikers, he will use two. If he thinks Drogba presents a better chance of scoring, he will not be influenced by the fact that he is 34 years old and could be gone this summer.
The Chelsea season is only as long as the next game. Di Matteo realizes this, and it will have him fielding the best side possible to make it happen.
In the first act of humility on the season, captain John Terry expressed the veteran sentiment ahead of the match:
I think this could be the last chance for this group of players in Europe. We have players who are out of contract in the summer and others who are in negotiation over their current deals. I am hoping that many of them stay and many more come in, but the key factor when it comes to new signings is that we need to be playing Champions League football next year. We need it financially and we also need it to attract the best players to the club. We will do everything to ensure that happens and I can tell you all that this group of players are determined to make things happen in this game.
The likes of Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba will always hold a special place at Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho may have been the one to bring them together to show them a winning way, but they were the ones who continued the newly established tradition after his departure.
But, there is no denying their advance years in age. In a game where the average player peaks around 27 years old, all of them, being on the twilight of their careers over 30, are cognizant to the notion that their time is coming.
With the prospect of playing in the Champions League next season out of their control, they really must make the most of now. A repeat of 2008 when they got to the Champions League final is highly unlikely, but there is no reason that they cannot at least advance to the next round.
This group may not be as talented as they were even two years ago, but they still have what it takes to win. If they can pull it all together and go out there and perform, then they should have no issue overcoming the odds.
For much of this season, Chelsea has functioned as a clock that was made up of different parts, by a watchmaker that was not familiar with them—it functioned, but never told the right time.
The games against both Stoke and Birmingham were not works of art in their movement and play, but they were a turning point in the players finally becoming a cohesive unit.
Due to the disjointed tactics and players out of position that Villas-Boas insisted on, things never flowed for Chelsea the way fans were use to.
The players would get isolated out on the wings, defenders would be caught running back toward goal, the forwards could never receive the ball, and the midfield was too spread out. It was horrendous to watch and tedious to deal with.
Di Matteo has seemingly given the group the freedom to move and do as they please. He puts out a formation and assigns roles, but ultimately trusts his players to cover each other as one moves in and out of another position.
This was never more evident that in Saturday’s match against Stoke. CareFreeChronic of the Chelsea fan site weaintgotnohistory.com breaks it down for us totally using Drogba’s 100th EPL goal as an example.
To sum it up briefly though, Mata’s simple passing lane to Drogba was a combination of runs and movement that happened two or three passes before the ball found Mata’s foot. And while many critique Lampard for selfish slow play, it was his run away from the ball that opened the lane.
This was the kind of play we expected from Chelsea all season long and though not doing it earlier has cost them trophies, coming along now should secure passage to the quarterfinals.
Let’s face it, Chelsea actually had an OK game against Napoli the first time around, but if it were not for some woeful midfield defending (uh hum, Raul Meireles) and momentary lapses by the back line, Chelsea should have escaped with a 1-1 draw at worst.
Though it is never alright to make excuses about injuries (after all, great teams are usually the deepest), it is difficult to argue that the absence of John Terry was not the biggest fact in that loss, as well as Villas-Boas’ sacking.
Terry is more than just a top-five defender in the league. He is more than the captain. He is even more than the heart of the team.
Terry embodies the Chelsea spirit in its totality. He is a gritty hard-nosed tackler who never backs down from any kind of challenge and does not concern himself with the appearance of the victory as long as he gets one.
He will routinely clear balls off the line, get up big on set pieces and knock down the opposition's star. He will rarely if ever make a run past the halfway line, play a precise and beautiful ball over the top or even touch it more than twice in a row. But no one could make a case that his style does not work.
Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi were allowed to move with far too much space last time, allowing them to muscle in and create. This will not be the case in today’s match.
Terry, if need be, will go shoulder to shoulder the very first time Cavani comes near him, peppering him with elbows and forearms, if for no other reason than to let him know it won’t be as easy this time around.
He will not score, he will not make a tremendous play, and he will not have much direct impact on a game that will be played in the Napoli third. But when the final whistle sounds and Chelsea are on their way to the Champions League quarterfinals, it will be because of the legend himself—John Terry.
It will not be an easy feat to overcome, but only needing two goals is not the worst possible scenario. Just last week, we all witnessed as Arsenal were a miskick away from doing the impossible by overcoming a four-goal deficit against an Italian team that has been better than Napoli on the season.
So why do you think Chelsea will prevail and be headed to the quarterfinals?
As always, please leave your comments below and thanks for reading!
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