Chelsea chasing European ray of light

It is apt that the venue where Chelsea will attempt to stave off the darkness that is threatening to envelope both their present and future is called The Stadium of Light.

For the old guard, the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien, this could be either one last hurrah or the moment where they realise their time has come.

This is a Champions League quarter-final tie with a difference, as Chelsea struggle to deal with the perspective it brings. That they can beat a dangerous Benfica team, packed full of exciting South American talent, is not in question. Yet whether they can win the tournament is much less clear, particularly as that appears to be their best chance of qualifying for next season’s competition.

Five points behind fourth-placed Tottenham with just eight games to go, Chelsea approach a last-eight tie with the focus on whether they will be at Europe’s top table next season, or if Roman Abramovich will be asked to fish around for the £37 million shortfall that failure to qualify would bring.

What was needed yesterday was unity and togetherness.

Roberto Di Matteo, the caretaker coach and David Luiz, who is returning to the club he left last January to join Chelsea, did their best at the pre-match press conference.

But their show of solidarity was undermined somewhat by Lampard’s forthright earlier comments, which were perhaps more remarkable as they were given to the club’s own in-house TV channel.

“The fixtures and where we are in the table doesn’t lie — we’re not as good as we used to be,” he said.

“We used to have a fortress here (at Stamford Bridge) and, for whatever reason, we’re just not doing it. It’s something we must all put right.

“Chelsea should be in the top four. With the ability we have, we should be in there.”

Di Matteo appeared surprised by Lampard’s comments, but attempted to both agree with the England international and tell his players they can still enjoy a season to remember.

He said: “The season has been very difficult for us. Chelsea used to be in the top two or top three, at least. So it’s been hard for us, domestically.

“But we’re in the semi-finals of a domestic cup, and in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. I have faith in this team. They’ve shown they can play at high intensity at a high level, so I’m looking forward to my team doing that again tomorrow.

“We have great belief in our abilities. That’s what we’re going to try and express tomorrow.”

And for that, the old guard have to step up, as they did in the second leg against Napoli in the last 16.

Yet what should be of greater worry is that Chelsea have scored first in each of their four away games in this competition so far this season — and have not won once.

They are also facing a Benfica side who have lost just twice in 24 league games and, thanks to the likes of Oscar Cardozo, Pablo Aimar and Nicolas Gaitan, average over two goals a game.

In addition, Benfica appear to have taken offence at a video on the Blues website which some have claimed shows Drogba feigning fear at having drawn Jorge Jesus’ men. Benfica boss Jesus warned Drogba his side would react to a perceived slight from the striker by beating Chelsea tonight.

Luiz suggested Drogba was actually reacting to the prospect of facing Barcelona in the semi-finals, insisting his team-mate had not been disrespecting Benfica.

Jesus accepted the forward was “probably just joking”, but added: “Drogba only knows what he’s thinking. You have to remember Benfica and Sporting Lisbon eliminated Manchester United and Manchester City, the two top teams in England, from Europe. Any responses we’ll be giving to Drogba will be on the field and proving we are better than him.”

But for those in charge of Chelsea, the question is whether the focus is on their game in Lisbon, or who could succeed Andre Villas-Boas on a permanent basis next season if they are not in the Champions League.

Unsurprisingly for a man only in temporary charge, Di Matteo was in little doubt.

“It’s not the time to be talking about the evolution or revolution of Chelsea,” he said.

“Everybody seems to have an opinion, and they have that right, but I disagree. I believe in my team, my squad, my players.

“We have many games to play in the Premier League to reach fourth, and two games in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It looked a little gloomier two weeks ago, so we’re pleased to be here.”

Yet whether the future is bright or not will be discovered in a Lisbon bearpit this evening.


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