Test of nerve for Di Matteo… Chelsea boss must make crunch calls for Champions League clash
22:29 GMT, 25 March 2012
There have been three Premier League titles, five domestic cups and an inane amount of money spent but since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, the trophy he craves most – the Champions League – has eluded him.
Winning it looks harder than ever. Chelsea are struggling for form and will have to beat Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid to the crown.
First they face a tricky trip on Tuesday to Lisbon where they take on Benfica – with big selection issues for manager Roberto Di Matteo.
Big calls: Roberto Di Matteo has some tricky decisions to make
Who plays alongside John Terry
Gary Cahill was excellent against Tottenham and already looks to be developing an understanding with Chelsea skipper Terry.
But in David Luiz, the Blues have someone who knows how the mind of Benfica manager Jorge Jesus works.
Maybe more importantly, he knows how best to deal with the potent threat of prolific Oscar Cardozo.
The Paraguay striker has scored 26 goals for the Portuguese club this season and nullifying his threat will be key for Chelsea.
Crucial: Gary Cahill's block saved the game for Chelsea
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE TIES
Benfica v Chelsea
TV: Sky Sports 2 from 7pm
Apoel Nicosia v Real Madrid
TV: Sky Sports 4 from 7.30pm
AC Milan v Barcelona
TV: ITV1 from 7.30pm
Marseille v Bayern Munich
TV: Sky Sports 2 from 7pm
Martin Keown's verdict: I’d go with Cahill as he and Terry are starting to develop a good partnership. Luiz is a great talent but he is very erratic and it doesn’t seem like defending is at the top of his list.
Also, how can you drop Cahill after his match-saving performance against Tottenham and his goals in the previous two matches
Who protects the full backs
Chelsea’s 4-3-2-1 system can cause problems when trying to protect their full backs. Ashley Cole will start at left back, while Di Matteo is confident Branislav Ivanovic can shake off a thigh injury to start in place of Jose Bosingwa.
Whoever plays on the flanks for Chelsea – be it Daniel Sturridge, Juan Mata, Florent Malouda or Salomon Kalou – will have to take the defensive side of his job seriously.
Gareth Bale caused difficulties from wide areas on Saturday and Di Matteo will face similar concerns with left-footed Nicolas Gaitan if his full backs are not protected enough.
Aid: Would Juan Mata come to the aid of his full-back
Keown's verdict: Chelsea’s full backs get forward very well but Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge don’t track back in the same way. You can’t play away in Europe without one defence-minded wide player. It’s what Antonio Valencia does for Manchester United.
So you could see the merit of playing Florent Malouda ahead of Sturridge to give them a bit more protection. Sturridge played in the European Under 21 Championship in the summer and looks a bit tired.
Time to rest weary legs
The Benfica match will be Chelsea’s seventh in 25 days — and their 46th game of the season.
‘We are playing big games every three days and that is taking its toll,’ said Di Matteo on Saturday.
‘Physically and mentally it’s very demanding. We just can’t keep playing the same players every game because they will burn out.’
The weariness poses a major problem for the Italian. Does he stay loyal to the club’s senior players, or does he pick a younger starting XI in a bid to combat fatigue
Tired: Michael Essien looks worn out
Keown's verdict: Michael Essien has had a run of important matches and looks tired. I am a huge fan of his – he’d get into my all-time Chelsea team – but he still seems a bit troubled by his cruciate injuries and is still playing his way back into his best form.
Mikel was one of the players to have his ego dented by Andre Villas-Boas’s reign and can be a safe pair of hands and fresh pair of legs.
Drogba or Torres
Didier Drogba showed glimpses of the sheer power that has made him one of the most feared strikers in Europe on Saturday – but worryingly he also showed signs of tiredness.
Lost causes the Ivorian would usually willingly chase down were ignored. On the other hand, Torres looked sharp and full of running when he came on as a 75th-minute substitute – illustrated by the way he ran half the length of the pitch to tackle Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
Enter Torres: Will Di Matteo start with Fernando Torres or Didier Drogba
Keown's verdict: Drogba has not performed consistently for Chelsea since they won the Double. We have seen flashes but he needs resting to get the best out of him.
For that reason, Torres must start tomorrow. The Spaniard needs to be a bit more selfish, though, and play more centrally and further forward so he’s in goalscoring positions. He needs Juan Mata to feed him like Steven Gerrard did at Liverpool.
CRUNCH TIME FOR CHELSEA – SAM CUNNINGHAM
The next month is make-or-break for Chelsea. If they progress in the Champions League they will have to play nine matches in 31 days.
These games will include two legs of the semi-final against Barcelona or AC Milan and an FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham or Bolton at Wembley.
At the same time Chelsea will be fighting to secure a top four place in the Barclays Premier League and face a crucial fixture away at third-placed Arsenal.
March 27: BENFICA – Champions League (away)
March 31: ASTON VILLA – Premier League (away)
April 4: BENFICA – Champions League (home)
April 7: WIGAN – Premier League (home)
April 9: FULHAM – Premier League (away)
April 15: TOTTENHAM or BOLTON – FA Cup (Wembley)
April 18: AC MILAN or BARCELONA Champions League (home)
April 21: ARSENAL Premier League (away)
April 25: AC MILAN or BARCELONA Champions League (away)