Back to the old-school away days for Roberto
23:28 GMT, 27 March 2012
Pep Guardiola, Laurent Blanc, the beauty parade that is Chelsea’s search for a manager continues. Quietly, though, the job being done by fireman Roberto Di Matteo is increasingly impressive.
Interim manager is the fashionable term for it these days. Sounds better than caretaker with its mental image of a man in soiled overalls sweeping up the debris and fixing the mess left by others.
Di Matteo is Chelsea’s interim appointment, meaning he minds the shop following the sudden departure of Andre Villas-Boas and is not expected to remain in a senior position for long when the season ends.
Going back to what you know: Chelsea players toast a well-earned away victory
Little is likely to have changed, despite this result. Aside from the time when a bizarre personal allegiance installed Avram Grant where Jose Mourinho had once been, the preference of owner Roman Abramovich has always been for the marquee names.
European champion Mourinho, world champion Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, even Villas-Boas arrived on the back of unprecedented first season success at Porto. He was the best young manager in Europe when he went to Stamford Bridge; it was only Chelsea’s peculiar brand of madness that saw him leave in the manner of an over-promoted office boy.
So Di Matteo is nobody’s idea of the future of Chelsea; but maybe he should be. A club who were going nowhere save out of every major competition they entered are now a semi-final win away from an FA Cup final appearance and a home draw with Benfica from the last four of the Champions League.
Pointing the way Roberto Di Matteo has been impressive in his leadership
That is where, by just about every estimation, the luck runs out. The winners of this tie will in all likelihood face Barcelona and one would have to fear for Chelsea in the Nou Camp, where the second leg is scheduled to take place.
Yet only Mourinho’s Inter Milan have come closer than Chelsea to humbling Guardiola’s Barcelona in Europe, and this display in Estadio da Luz had the germ of that resilience under Guus Hiddink three years ago.
Safe hands: Petr Cech kept Chelsea's first clean sheet in Europe this season
Di Matteo has gone back to basics with Chelsea. He has recognised that the basis for success in recent seasons remains resolute defence and that Villas-Boas’s biggest error was his attempt to alter those principles with a high line that failed to make the best of the ability of captain John Terry.
He was outstanding again, and when Terry is good, and confident, he brings the best out of the man by his side. David Luiz enjoyed arguably his best defensive performance of the season, in surroundings he knew well. That was another away win for Di Matteo. Whereas Villas-Boas gambled on an unusual selection against Napoli, and lost. Di Matteo pulled it off in Lisbon.
Top man: John Terry was in imperious form in Portugal
He wanted players that felt at home here, that knew the territory, so included almost all of his Portuguese, the natives and adopted sons: Paulo Ferreira, Luiz, Ramires, Raul Meireles. It worked. Ramires was Chelsea’s best player, Luiz not far behind.
He always looks susceptible to a brainstorm and probably always will, but some defenders are like that; usually those that can momentarily juggle the ball off the knee facing goal in his own six-yard box before volleying clear, as Luiz did here.
Nobody would compare Benfica to Barcelona. Indeed, on this evidence quite how they helped orchestrate Manchester United’s exit from this competition at the group stage remains something of a mystery, yet they still needed to be resisted. So this was a start. Chelsea deserved their win for both a staunch defensive display and some excellent work on the counter attack, another quality that endures.
Clincher: Salomon Kalou pounces to give Chelsea the advantage heading into next week's return leg
This was old school Chelsea, once more. Resilient yet with the wit to break hard at Benfica and eventually take a chance when it mattered, Salomon Kalou having missed a sitter earlier in the second-half.
Importantly, it wasn’t just the old-school players who dragged them through this time, though. Ramires was quite magnificent, tireless and energetic, his running the key to the goal. Fernando Torres, too, continued his recent resurgence. No goals, the critics will say, but he made Kalou’s winner in fine style and we are beginning to witness glimpses of the forward Abramovich hoped to have obtained from Liverpool for 50million.
This was another good night for him (and he was better at Manchester City than he was given credit for in many quarters, too).
On the right track: Fernando Torres is showing signs of making a return to form
Results vindicate decisions, or otherwise. Villas-Boas made big changes in Napoli, lost and was sacked. Di Matteo left out Frank Lampard here and emerged a winner (although Lampard had been introduced as a substitute by the time Chelsea scored).
The plan, he said later, was to get as much energy into the game as possible, hence his preference for the hard-running Torres over Didier Drogba, too, and it worked. Chelsea matched an experienced, lively Benfica group stride for stride and reduced them to desperate, direct football by the end. When a Portuguese team get a late free-kick and the goalkeeper charges upfield to hoof it hopefully into the mixer, a manager knows his work is done.
Frustration: Juan Mata reacts after hitting the post in the first half
Yet the biggest bonus for Chelsea and Di Matteo was at the back. Chelsea haven’t kept a clean sheet beyond Stamford Bridge in Europe all season, although they have also scored in every away game. Managers don’t like those tit-for-tat exchanges, though. Too much uncertainty, too much left to chance.
What managers like is 1-0, particularly away from home in Europe. Obviously, they aim higher at Barcelona, but having seen Chelsea leak three in Naples, Di Matteo will have been delighted with this. Tight, tidy, it was Chelsea as they used to be, and how they will need to be if a match-up with Lionel Messi is what Di Matteo’s future holds.