Chelsea are having a rough season on home soil, but Tuesday night they left behind their problems to focus on the one assignment on hand—holding aloft the lone English flag in Europe.
And at the end of the day, they acquitted themselves well, having put in an assured and calculated display in the Portuguese stronghold of Lisbon where Benfica ply their destructive art in the magical world of football.
Chelsea were not destroyed. In fact, they escaped rather unscathed. They beat Benfica by a lone goal.
It was a measured first half, and one wondered what Benfica's game plan was. Was it supposed to lure Chelsea into a false sense of security and, when thus lured and lulled, hit them hard and fast after the break?
It would seem so, since the home team emerged for the second chapter of this match showing more intent and purpose and causing a few panicky reactions from Chelsea—like David Luiz's clearance from off the goal line in the 46th minute. But by and large, little changed in the second half in terms of real pressure on Chelsea.
As time wore on, Benfica resorted to taking potshots at the Chelsea goal.
It didn't work.
As a matter of fact, but for Chelsea's understandable caution in going forward when they had the ball, they could have taken the lead before the 75th minute when they did.
In the end, what mattered was that they did get the result they needed. Even better than what they could have envisioned, they earned a well-taken away goal that came through the persistent work from the tireless Ramirez, who supplied the live wire for Fernando Torres to stitch together. Without that driving run down the right flank, this particular goal wouldn't have come.
Fernando Torres' calm as a supplier for Salomon Kalou must also be applauded. His elusive cross invited just one thing from Kalou—bundle home, and bundle home Kalou did.
And just like that, Chelsea were ahead; the home crowd quieted, and the lone English flag was dancing high in the Portuguese skies.
The Wisdom of Rotation
When the Chelsea lineup was announced, not a few commentators wondered about the wisdom of omitting the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, or what the likes of Paulo Ferreira and Jon Mikel Obi were doing in the lineup.
In fact, before Chelsea's goal, Gary Neville, commenting for Sky Sports, while acknowledging that the likes of Jon Mikel Obi were acquitting themselves well in the match, still wondered why Roberto Di Matteo hadn't gone with the more-experienced Essien.
Beyond the noticeable fact that this lineup was skewed towards Portuguese players or those with a connection to the country, what should have been obvious was that Di Matteo was opting for players that hadn't played against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, a match that must have left many of the players exhausted.
It showed in Juan Matta, who was less than his usual crisp and vibrant self in this match.
So here was the first wisdom of selection on display—rotation. That's what big squads are for. That's why a team has covering players. If you are afraid to use them, then don't keep them; let them go.
If, however, you decide that a player is good enough to be kept on a huge salary, such as the ones paid at Chelsea, then by all means play them. That's what Di Matteo did, and we must give him credit for going back to the basics and for the courage to do so.
Players Over System
Also on display at Benfica was another basic tenet of management—fit your system to the players you have and not the other way round.
The "other way round" was the undoing of Andre Villas-Boas, who, charged by his employer to invigorate the system at hand, forgot to temper his mandate with basic wisdom.
Humans, as we know, are adverse to change. So it was no surprise that Chelsea's old guards resisted Villas-Boas, a factor that led to his demise.
Since Di Matteo took over, he has found a way to incorporate fringe players into his plans, and in doing so, he has had to do what Villas-Boas had done unwisely—bench some of the sacred cows of the club.
But as long as you do so in the guise of rotation, no one is going to complain. Rest, everyone would agree, is necessary for everybody, including the sacred cows.
This is the approach Villas-Boas should have used.
It would have allowed him to gradually fade out the players no longer needed at Chelsea, and he would have done so while still calling upon their services. No one is kidding himself or herself that the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba or even John Terry have long to stay at the Bridge, but even so, it would be suicidal to bluntly marginalized them.
Villas-Boas did and paid for it.
Here, in this match, Di Matteo decided to bench the flamboyant Daniel Sturridge and go instead with the marginalized Salomon Kalou. He needed a player less selfish in possession and more willing to track back and defend. That he found in Kalou.
In the case of the preference of Obi Mikel over Essien, Mikel did well in the Manchester City match, so beside the rotation factor, there wasn't any reason why Di Matteo couldn't call upon the midfielder. Mikel, though cautious (too cautious for my liking most times), is an effective cover for the defense; he also passes well and has a keen sense for positioning.
I believe he is the better player at the moment, so I wasn't surprised to see him in the lineup.
The average fan talks about 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or the variations thereof as though these were the sum of tactics. The average manager employs these formations in this manner as well.
It is the reason why teams like Bayer Leverkusen are given the kind of drubbing they received at Barcelona while persisting to play their unyielding and square lines.
Another basic tenet of management is to mold the system to fit the players on hand—not the other way round. Di Matteo obeyed this principle in this match, and it worked.
Proper Tactics Bring Success
I have always said that tactics are more like a flow chart rather than simplistic hyphenated numbers that people bandy about. A good tactician anticipates likely events in a given match and is prepared for them.
This informs approaches to take and players to use. It is the reason Jose Mourinho is so good.
Here, Chelsea only needed to come back home unscathed. They didn't need to drive forward for goals; that onus had to be on the home side. If Chelsea could return with a decent result, say a 1-0 defeat or a goalless draw, then they could push for goals in the return leg. That's when the onus would be on them to score.
With this in mind, it makes a great deal of sense that, beside the necessary factor of rotation, Didier Droga, Frank Lampard and Daniel Sturridge—three attack-minded players—wouldn't be used in this leg.
Here, it would be best to play a disciplined defensive game, and that was what Roberto Di Matteo did.
It was good tactics.
I'd expect to see a more attack-minded Chelsea in the second leg when Chelsea, despite their away-goal advantage, would need to score. That's when the attacking instincts and the potency of this trio of players would be more useful.
Kudos, then, to Roberto Di Matteo and to Chelsea for keeping the lone English flag aloft in Europe.