Frankly, we're not that good: Lampard demands a reaction
23:44 GMT, 26 March 2012
Chelsea, as Frank Lampard says, are not as good as they used to be. They lack the machine-like consistency they enjoyed under Jose Mourinho, not to mention the touch of flare they possessed when Carlo Ancelotti guided them to their third Barclays Premier League title two years ago.
Some of the players, Lampard among them, are also the wrong side of 30, but there is a reason, you suspect, why Lampard has chosen now to stir things up a bit.
He referenced his criticism with the need to reproduce the kind of performance they can still muster from time to time. In particular he spoke of the ‘urgency’ they showed against Napoli.
Must do better: Frank Lampard criticised Chelsea's season so far
As Lampard understands only too well, the Champions League is very different to the Premier League. A team can finish fifth in England but emerge as European champions, as Liverpool so memorably demonstrated in 2005.
It is clearly with that in mind that Roberto Di Matteo digested Lampard’s words here at the Estadio Da Luz last night on the eve of what promises to be a fascinating, potentially spiky quarter-final against Benfica. ‘We’ve had a difficult season,’ said Chelsea’s interim manager.
Taking a break Chelsea's Didier Drogba (left) has a word with David Luiz during training
'But we have a lot of quality in this team and they have shown they can perform with a high intensity at a high level.’
On their European travels they have not been so clever, failing to win any of their last five games. But Di Matteo urged his audience to look closer at the here and now, and the fact they have scored 13 goals in their last six games while securing three clean sheets.
When the most recent Champions League draw was made, Di Matteo refused to discuss a possible semi-final against Barcelona and the meeting with Mourinho’s Real Madrid that could follow.
It was fair enough, and not just because he considered it disrespectful to Benfica as well as the AC Milan players whom Barcelona must defeat to progress to the last four.
Practice makes perfect: Chelsea train ahead of their last-eight clash with Benfica
Di Matteo could see what was coming; the kind of exchange that would end with Chelsea all but being dismissed as serious European Cup contenders; as a team with no chance of satisfying Roman Abramovich’s craving for the greatest prize of all.
But this is where we need to recognise that distinction between English and European football, even if the path to glory in Munich remains a perilous one.
When Liverpool won the Champions League seven years ago they did so with a side that included Djimi Traore and Steve Finnan. They had some fine players, too, and in Rafa Benitez a manager who had already lifted a major European trophy while also guiding Valencia to Spanish titles ahead of Real and Barcelona.
Leading from the front: Lampard will attempt to help Chelsea into the semi-finals
But Chelsea should not see the absence of such a manager as a problem either when they have fared as well as they have in the past while in the hands of a temporary boss. Under Avram Grant they reached the 2008 final, while under Guus Hiddink they so nearly conquered Barcelona in the semi-final a year later.
If Chelsea can conquer Benfica, the DVDs of those games against Barcelona should be studied by Di Matteo in minute detail because there, over the course of 180 minutes, was a demonstration of how to compete with probably the finest club side we have seen.
Far from trying to beat the Catalan club at their own game, Hiddink organised Chelsea to play to their strengths, and their more physical, disciplined, high-pressure approach nearly proved successful.
Defence: Roberto Di Matteo claimed his Chelsea side has plenty of quality
In the end they were eliminated by Barcelona’s only effort on target in that second leg at Stamford Bridge, scored by Andres Iniesta in the third minute of second-half stoppage time.
Chelsea’s players can draw on that, as well as the experience gained in the competition, and anyone who dismisses the importance of experience in the Champions League need only look at Manchester City and the younger players at Manchester United this season.
Add to that the extra incentive that this is probably the last chance the more senior Chelsea players will have of winning the European Cup together and it could be quite a team Benfica meet this evening — a team very much on a mission.
As Di Matteo explained, Chelsea still have their problems, not least with fatigue thanks to a congested fixture list. They looked tired against Tottenham on Saturday.
Who to choose Fernando Torres (left) and Didier Drogba will likely fight it out for the single striking role
But the interim manager does have
options, with the temptation to select a sharper-looking Fernando
Torres ahead of a heavy-legged Didier Drogba one he will have to
That and what is sure to be a
difficult choice between Gary Cahill and David Luiz. The smart money
last night said Luiz will start against his former club.
As Di Matteo rightly says, the first
task is to avoid suffering the kind of setback they did in the opening
leg in Naples. Jorge Jesus’s Benfica side are dangerous, in particular
Paraguay striker Oscar Cardozo, and by last night their egos were a
little bruised, too.
Much is being made of a Drogba video in Portugal and the response of Jesus suggested it had ruffled a few feathers.
‘Portuguese clubs have eliminated
Manchester United and Manchester City, the top two teams in the Premier
League, so that should act as an indication of the strengths of
Portuguese football,’ said Jesus.
He also dismissed the need to speak
to Mourinho or Andre Villas-Boas ahead of this game, and with a name
like Jesus why would he need the self-anointed Special One
But it would still be foolish to dismiss Chelsea, even if they are not quite the side they used to be.