Chelsea close in on semi-finals as Di Matteo's 'risk' pays off
Roberto di Matteo said last night that he took a risk by picking Salomon Kalou for last night's Champions League quarter-final first leg against Benfica but it paid off handsomely when the attacker scored the goal that meant Chelsea have one foot in the semi-finals of the competition.
Kalou, largely frozen out under previous manager Andre Villas-Boas, scored with 15 minutes left here at the Estadio da Luz to give Chelsea a huge advantage in the home leg a week today. The prospect of another semi-final against Barcelona beckons, with the defending champions facing Milan tonight in the first leg of their quarter-final.
It was an interesting team selection from Di Matteo who left out Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien and was rewarded with a solid Chelsea performance, especially in defence where he picked Paulo Ferreira in the starting line-up for the first time this year. The Chelsea goalkeeping coach, Christophe Lollichon, was sent to the stands by the Italian referee as tempers frayed on both benches.
Di Matteo said that Kalou had responded well to his selection. "He's come into the team after a long spell out, he got the goal and had a great game," the Chelsea caretaker manager said. "I didn't think it was a gamble but sometimes in life you have to take a little risk. With the fact we are playing all these games, it was important to select a team that had the energy for a high-tempo game. It's terrific, we couldn't have hoped for a better result.
"I thought we looked good defensively. For 90 minutes we had to run and tackle, and I had to select a team that had the energy to compete. Nothing is over. There is still another 90 minutes to play. But we will have home advantage and we will try and qualify."
Kalou said he had responded to the faith placed in him by Di Matteo. "We played as a team and when you play as a team it makes it easier to win," the Ivorian said. "Any goal is important. I'm just happy to have scored. You want to play every game, but the manager makes the decisions and you have to respect it. It's a good result, the away goal is very important. The manager gave me a chance and I have to show it on the pitch."
The Benfica coach, Jorge Jesus, was less impressed with Chelsea's performance. He accused the English team of "managing time" – time-wasting – and said that his team had deserved to win the game. "Chelsea showed how experienced they are in this game," Jesus said. "Nil-nil would have been a good result for them. The only time they got anywhere near our goal they scored. It was not a just result, but they scored the only goal."
Di Matteo said he had no option but to make changes to a team who face a pile-up of games. After playing Aston Villa on Saturday, Chelsea play three games in nine days before the FA Cup semi-final on 15 April. Branislav Ivanovic was missing last night after failing a fitness test yesterday morning.
Di Matteo said: "I'm involving everybody that is in the squad, rotating. We'll need everybody until the end of the season. Paulo Ferreira hasn't played for a while but was outstanding tonight for me. We cannot play with just 11 players. We need everybody in the squad. You'll see other players who have maybe played a little less in the past playing more of a role in the future. It's just impossible for us to play every three days and reach the fitness levels needed to win games.
"One of the reasons behind this selection was to put in players like Raul Meireles, Ferreira, David Luiz and Ramires who knew Benfica well, their players and the atmosphere here. They've had that experience. But I don't want to single out any of our players because we had so many outstanding performances tonight from our squad, our team."
Nevertheless, there was praise for Fernando Torres who played 90 minutes last night and who Di Matteo said had been "terrific" since he took charge.