Di Matteo overshadowed by Chelsea captain on eve of biggest test
If Roberto Di Matteo wished to project an image of being in control of Chelsea nine days after he took the caretaker manager's job, then it was arguably not the best idea to sit alongside John Terry as he last night gave his first press conference since he was stripped of the England captaincy.
To say that Di Matteo was a peripheral figure on the eve of the biggest night of his managerial career was an understatement. There were 14 questions for Terry and four for Di Matteo, although three of those were from the Italian reporters in the room who will remember him from his days at Lazio. This was, unmistakably, the John Terry show.
Given that Terry was at pains to point out, in the wake of another managerial sacking, that it was the owner, Roman Abramovich, and his board who run the club and not the players, the image presented was a little unfortunate. Terry has not given a set-piece press conference of this kind since before his last game as England captain against Sweden in November and he was always going to be the star attraction.
It meant at times it was easy to forget that tonight against Napoli, chasing a 3-1 deficit from the first leg, Chelsea are on the precipice of a humiliating exit from the Champions League in the first knockout round. It does not look promising when you consider that the Premier League's last representatives in the competition have not won any of their last five home games in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Every year Chelsea's failure to win the competition – be it at a relatively early stage, or even losing in the final – has been accompanied by much handwringing and dark mutterings about the manager's future. It is a sign of how much they have struggled this season that a dignified exit tonight – with a win over Napoli – would not be considered a disaster. Failing to qualify for the tournament next season? Now that would be a calamity.
For a time yesterday all those fears and concerns were put to one side as Terry tackled the big issues. When he was asked by Gazzetta dello Sport's London correspondent to speak about Capello, in a delicately framed question, Terry glanced anxiously for a moment at the club official to his right who had earlier forbidden any questions on England and then ploughed on anyway.
When the "issues swirling around" Terry were alluded to, he replied, somewhat incredibly, "With all what swirling around?" Where to start? We could have been there all day. But for Terry it came down to the simple matter of how he had performed on the pitch before his operation last month and then subsequently against Stoke City on Saturday and he was confident his performances had been good.
There was a good deal more warmth towards Capello from Terry than there was for the sacked Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas, who was given the usual sympathy for paying the price for the team's failings. In fairness, there are others in the squad who will have had greater reason to dislike Villas-Boas than the captain who remained a mainstay of the team.
Having missed the first leg through injury, Terry insisted that the tie could be rescued tonight, although he stopped short of last year's insistence before the Champions League first leg against Copenhagen, which came during another lull in the team's fortunes, that the team "man up".
He said: "We've gained a lot of experience over the years. The one thing that does stay with me is the disappointment from those nights: against Monaco, Barcelona; in Moscow, clearly. In my mind, the only way to overcome that is to come through, kick on and go on and win this competition. It's the one trophy missing from our cabinet. I've got a few years in me yet, and I really hope I can bring this trophy to the Bridge."
Yet the chances are that it will not be this year and if, indeed, Chelsea do lose to Napoli and exit the competition in the first knockout round, for the first time since defeat to Jose Mourinho's Internazionale two years ago, then Di Matteo will have more modest goals. First to beat Leicester City on Sunday in the FA Cup quarter-final and then to continue progressing in the league against Manchester City on Wednesday.
That is the realistic approach to the situation should Chelsea go out tonight, a damage limitation exercise with the possibility that the new manager can rebuild in the summer. When Terry was asked whether this was his last chance, he reiterated his belief that he is moving closer, rather than further away, to winning the competition.
"Listen, we don't feel cursed. We've been unfortunate in previous big nights here. You need a quality team to go on and win this competition, allied with a bit of luck which we've missed out on. But I know we've still got an abundance of quality here, and the determination buzzing around that dressing room to make this happen. We are as prepared as we can be. It's now the responsibility of the players."
Terry's belief in his own longevity will have been strengthened by the fact the club have kept a clean sheet in the last five games in which he has started. There is clearly a necessity to refresh this Chelsea team that has not been attended to over the years but, at 31, Terry remains the best defender at the club.
He will have to be at his best tonight if Chelsea are to stop the golden attacking trio of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani, who were all involved in Friday's 6-3 home win over Cagliari in Serie A. This is not a team that are likely to be intimidated by playing at Stamford Bridge.
"The players have been through this pressure before," Di Matteo said. "The team will know what to do. It will be a strong team." But it was not him doing most of the talking.
Key confrontations: Chelsea v Napoli
John Terry v Edinson Cavani
In Naples, David Luiz and Gary Cahill could not handle the movement and power of Cavani. The return of John Terry should be an improvement, but even then he is not the quickest and may struggle to contain the bounding Uruguayan striker.
Michael Essien v Marek Hamsik
The return of Michael Essien after a long spell out has firmed up Chelsea's midfield at a difficult time. They will need him close to his ferocious, destructive best to stay close to Hamsik, who likes to move between the lines and slip passes through.
Juan Mata v Walter Gargano
Chelsea's most creative player must try to drift away from the attentions of Gargano, who, with Gokhan Inler, forms a midfield shield which is not easy to penetrate.