LONDON: Chelsea have one foot in the semi-finals of the Champions League; they are also into the semi-finals of the FA Cup. The irony of a season widely described as “a failure” is that the Blues could end with two trophies.
Even Chelsea fans consider the prospect of overcoming Barcelona or Real Madrid in the Champions League as a remote possibility. But the victory over Benfica in Lisbon highlighted one positive factor working in favour of caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo.
This concerns the ‘elder statesmen’ such as Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Paulo Ferreira – who made his first start of the year in Lisbon – even John Terry and Ashley Cole.
They do not all play every game but they all know that the Premier League title is out of reach, perhaps even a top four place whatever the result at Aston Villa today. So the personal priority for them has become the cup competitions.
The tradition of English football, with the iconic status of the FA Cup and its history, means that every player believes that any team can win a one-off cup-tie – whatever the ‘real’ comparative strengths and weaknesses.
As goalkeeper Petr Cech said: “We are living in a strange season. Benfica was the perfect game for us in terms of result. We kept a clean sheet and were patient all game waiting for our chances to come and in the end we scored from a very good counter attack.
“In terms of the game plan we did really well. We didn’t let them play in the first half, and in the second we waited patiently for our chance and then it came.”
Chelsea head into next week’s second leg in far more comfortable position than they did in the previous round against Napoli, where they trailed 3:1 after the first match but recovered at Stamford Bridge to win in extra time.
Cech added: “It’s too early to think of the final as there is still a long way to go but we have regained a lot of confidence in the last few weeks. That makes such a difference.”
Di Matteo admitted he took a risk with his team selection, which saw him leave out Napoli heroes Lampard, Drogba and Michael Essien and hand rare starts to Ferreira, John Obi Mikel and matchwinner Salomon Kalou.
He explained: “It’s just a question of trying to freshen up the team. We knew Benfica play at a high tempo so we needed fresh players who could run. That was my reasoning behind it.”
Chelsea really do need to make the most of fresh legs: Lisbon was the third of seven games in 20 days and their request to have their FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham pulled forward to Friday, April 13 has been snubbed by the FA. They must play their Cup derby on Sunday, April 15 at 6pm – the opposite extreme.
West Bromwich manager Roy Hodgson has said he expect talks discussions over his future to “hot up a bit” soon.
Swansea midfielder Leon Britton has signed a new three-year deal until the summer of 2015 while manager Brendan Rodgers says reports linking him with Spurs are “disrespectful” to Harry Redknapp.
Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has apologised to Tony Pulis for not shaking his hand last week.
Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish has appealed for to be patient with the club and team’s reconstruction work.
# # # #