James Lawton: Di Matteo on a different planet to Andre Villas-Boas
Published 28/03/2012 | 08:54
Did anyone ever hold a fort more phlegmatically, more sensibly than Roberto Di Matteo?
These may not be the qualities required to ambush Barcelona if Chelsea manage to march on the foundations of last night's triumph at the Estado da Luz – or make a new team from the residue of Jose Mourinho's work – but in the cuffing aside of Benfica there was something impressively authentic to behold.
It was the sight of a team who looked to be demonstrably in the care of professional hands. Benfica were somewhat flattered by their lingering presence in the great tournament but then they were given hardly a scrap of encouragement.
Chelsea were on top of their opponents – and in control of themselves. That may be far from ultimate praise at this level of the game but when you consider all that had gone before, it will do very nicely for some time.
By half-time Chelsea had the look of a fighter who had taken his opponent's best shots and was beginning to shake his head in disdain. If this was more than an illusion, it was a tribute to the ill-considered cornerman Di Matteo.
His decision not to start the voluble old guard of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, and also Michael Essien, may have raised eyebrows, if anything short of full-scale insurrection is likely to achieve this in the current affairs of the club, but it seemed as if no one had mentioned it. If they had, the caretaker of a thousand cares, could hardly have looked less perturbed as he chewed his gum with something approaching serenity.
Certainly, he seemed to be occupying a different planet – almost a sea of tranquillity, in fact – to his tortured predecessor Andre Villas-Boas.
He is, after all, for the moment at least a man who has nothing to lose but a temporary foothold on the most severe case of shifting sands in all of the game.
A recent report that Roman Abramovich may be hatching a £40m overture to Barcelona's Pep Guardiola was guaranteed to provoke only a shrug in the phlegmatic Italian-Swiss – as was the most perilous first-half moment when Bruno Cesar played a sublime ball into the path of the normally acute opportunist Oscar Cardozo.
The bad moment passed and so did another early in the second half when a ferocious ground shot from Cardozo was stopped with great composure by David Luiz, who was making the happiest of returns to an old hunting ground.
However, the second assault was more calculated to disturb Di Matteo's equilibrium. It was not what he might have anticipated after a first half in which the running of Ramires, a fierce shot from Raul Meireles and fresh signs of the potential reincarnation of Fernando Torres indeed reminded you of a fighter coming out of his shell.
It was at this stage a much different Chelsea to the one which was was so overwhelmed by Napoli in the first leg of the previous round – and a much more composed figure on the touchline.
Whatever the long odds against Di Matteo succeeding permanently the distraught Villas-Boas, it was hard not to believe this was evidence of an approach that might have served well his inexperienced predecessor. This was a team living, and operating, in the moment, which is not so easy to do when you are constantly being told you are the sure-fire victims of a major project of transition.
Di Matteo also seemed to have timed the restoration of Lampard with some precision. Meireles had a yellow card and a hard time dealing with the baiting of the Portuguese crowd and the arrival of Lampard coincided with a lifting of a Benfica siege which, it has to be said, never matched in sharpness or persistence the one laid down so menacingly to Chelsea's prospects in Naples.
Juan Mata might have removed the need for the drama of Stamford Bridge in the second leg against the Italians when he found himself facing an open goal, admittedly from an acute angle, but soon enough the advantage was gained when Torres exposed again the languid pace of the Benfica cover and laid on the cross for the admirable Salomon Kalou to score the precious away goal.
Benfica certainly weren't Napoli but they were the team who helped remove Manchester United from the Champions League and they carried considerable momentum into this tie. Their problem was that they faced a side of considerable organisation and no little concerted spirit. There were also a few perceptible remnants of a formidable force.
Not too many of Chelsea's beaten opponents this season have been able to reach for such an excuse, which was of course still another tribute to the man who had been given the job of picking up the pieces.
A likely place in the semi-finals of the Champions League and one achieved in the FA Cup may well be considered something more than some rather tidy housework.