Victory against Benfica could blur bigger picture for Chelsea
It is the start, tonight, of potentially 12 Chelsea games in the space of just 40 days for Roberto Di Matteo who, when the season is over, would still expect to find himself in the figurative wilderness when it comes to his management career.
As the only English club still involved in European football, and the only one with a stake in three different competitions, a gruelling run of games awaits Chelsea if they are successful in carrying their 1-0 advantage from the first leg and eliminating Benfica at Stamford Bridge tonight. Those 12 games include a prospective Champions League two-legged semi-final and potentially the FA Cup final on 5 May, but not the Champions League final itself.
Should Chelsea reach both finals they will play 13 games in 46 days. Their penultimate Premier League fixture away at Liverpool on 6 May will have to be pushed back into the following midweek before the final league game of the season against Blackburn Rovers, which must be played on 13 May. The club have accepted that their attempts to get the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur moved forward two days will not be successful.
If this had been any of Chelsea's previous eight seasons there would have been less concern about the fixture congestion, but the threat to their hitherto unchallenged status as a top-four club has transformed the picture.
The problem for Di Matteo is that the undoubted priority for his team is making up the five points on Arsenal and Spurs above them in third and fourth place in the Premier League and ensuring qualification for the Champions League next season. The subplot is that an unexpected end-of-season tilt at glory in Europe and the FA Cup might just prove to be the undoing of Chelsea when it comes to finishing in the top four.
The sheer weight of the games they will have to play in order to fight on all fronts this season is the elephant in the corner for Chelsea. All Di Matteo's players trained last night, including David Luiz, Raul Meireles and Didier Drogba, who were injury concerns, and he will need all of them if he is to get through the next seven weeks.
While qualifying for the Champions League next season could be accomplished by winning the competition outright in May, the more realistic route would be to finish in the top four of the Premier League. Yet the bind is that, while Di Matteo cannot afford to be uncompetitive in the cup competitions, it will be those games that put pressure on his squad when it comes to winning the crucial Premier League games.
Should Chelsea triumph tonight they will, for instance, have to play a very tough sequence of three games in six days starting a week on Sunday with the FA Cup semi-final against Spurs on 15 April. The first leg of the Champions League semi-final will follow on the Wednesday. Three days later on Saturday 21 April they will have to play Arsenal away at the Emirates – a pivotal league game.
Di Matteo is loath to discuss it but even he had to admit that the problem is looming. "It might become an issue at some point, I don't know," he said. "Fortunately, we have a fully fit squad which will help us in the run-in, to be able to play every player we have and give everybody a chance, an opportunity, and some fresh players as well.
"I think there are a lot of clubs that would like to have so many games, to be involved in all these competitions. We have to keep going and try and stay in these competitions, and try to win something. It's very demanding for the players, but we're in a good place. All the players are available, that will help."
Tonight, he has to decide whether to start with Frank Lampard or Meireles in midfield, both players competing for the holding place alongside John Obi Mikel. Salomon Kalou, who scored the goal in the first leg, is now back in favour and most likely to start on the left of the three in a 4-2-3-1 formation. There is another big call on whether to stick with the – relatively – in-form Fernando Torres over Didier Drogba.
The injury news is worse for Benfica, who travelled to London without the injured centre-halves Ezequiel Garay, Miguel Vitor and Jardel. The Portuguese club's manager, Jorge Jesus, said last night that he would have no alternative but to play the midfielder Javi Garcia alongside Luisao in the centre of defence.
Should they make it past Benfica tonight, Chelsea will find themselves in the club's sixth Champions League semi-final in the space of nine years and yet the mood yesterday, ahead of the quarter-final second leg between Milan and Barcelona last night, was that they have never looked further away from winning the competition than they do now.
So far Di Matteo has won six of his eight games in charge, although when the team have come up against their biggest tests – Manchester City and Tottenham in the league – they have failed to win. Nevertheless, it is an improvement on the end of the Andre Villas-Boas regime, when they were not even winning what should have been relatively straightforward games.
The club is in a curious position. By tomorrow they could find themselves in the semi-final of the Champions League but, should they not take full points in the league against Wigan Athletic and Fulham on Saturday and Monday, then the pressure will really be on for fourth place. Similarly, they at last have a full squad from which to select, and in Torres a player who seems finally to be coming into form, but a manager who is not likely to be in charge beyond May.
In some respects the pressure is off in the Champions League, if only because for Chelsea it is that much more acute in the race for fourth place in the Premier League. But should they prevail tonight then thoughts will turn to the possibility of that Munich final next month and the chance that they might at long last end their wait for this one outstanding trophy in their collection.
Chelsea v Benfica: Three key confrontations
Jon Obi Mikel v Pablo Aimar
One of the most gifted creative players of his generation, Pablo Aimar will need to find time and space if Benfica are to score the goals necessary to reach the semi-finals. Mikel's job will be to deny the Argentinian playmaker those two things, tracking his runs, shutting off his openings and not conceding too many free-kicks. He will certainly have had easier evenings in his Chelsea career.
Branislav Ivanovic v Gaitan
The Serbian right-back is always dependable in defence and attack, and was excellent in the famous 4-1 defeat of Napoli here in the last 16. Tonight in Nicolas Gaitan he will face almost his opposite as a footballer, with none of his ruggedness but much more wit. Gaitan might not limit Ivanovic's bursts forward in support of Ramires, but will certainly try to tease him out of position with his intelligent movement.
Fernando Torres v Luisao
After two goals against Leicester, an assist in the first leg at Benfica, and another goal at Villa Park, Torres may finally be hitting something approaching good form for the first time at Stamford Bridge. Tonight he will find his path to goal blocked by Luisao, an uncompromising and experienced Brazilian international centre-back, but one for whom Torres' rediscovered burst of pace might just be too much.