striker Salomon Kalou sliding in to score the match winner past
Benfica's goalkeeper Artur. Kalou's goal vindicated the decision by
interim coach Roberto di Matteo to start the Ivory Coast forward in
attack in place of England international Daniel Sturridge.
Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou sliding in to score the
match winner past Benfica's goalkeeper Artur. Kalou's goal vindicated
the decision by interim coach Roberto di Matteo to start the Ivory Coast
forward in attack in place of England international Daniel Sturridge.
-- PHOTO: REUTERS
Chelsea's Italian coach Roberto di Matteo getting ready
to join in the celebrations with his players at the end of their
surprise 1-0 win over Benfica. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
LONDON: Five weeks ago, a mutinous Chelsea
without Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole in the starting
line-up fell 1-3 at Napoli, spelling the end of Andre Villas-Boas'
On Tuesday, Roberto di Matteo
risked the ridicule that had been poured upon his predecessor by making
another controversial team selection at Benfica.
The difference, however, was that the Italian
got all of his big calls right. And the result was a 1-0 win that put
the Blues on the brink of a sixth Champions League semi-final of the
Roman Abramovich era.
Like in Naples, there was only a place on the
bench for the experienced Lampard and Essien, but Raul Meireles
justified his selection in midfield.
Fernando Torres, chosen ahead of Didier
Drogba, worked tirelessly up front. He created the winning goal for
Salomon Kalou, who had been largely ignored by Villas-Boas, while Paulo
Ferreira impressed in his first start since New Year's Eve at
It was a selection that proved di Matteo - not
remotely considered a viable candidate to be Chelsea manager when he
was installed as interim manager - had done his homework.
As Benfica showed twice against Manchester United in the group stage, they are at their best in an open, attacking game.
Their stop-start style allows their
playmakers, Nicolas Gaitan and Pablo Aimar, to cut opponents to ribbons
by altering the tempo. And di Matteo was not prepared to allow that.
He crowded the midfield, encouraged his
players to sit deep and drafted in specialist personnel to ensure that
there was no let-up in intensity.
Although Chelsea were under pressure for long periods, they grew stronger and their lead did not come as a surprise.
Juan Mata had hit the post from an acute angle
before their greater fire-power finally told with a goal that also
revealed their fighting spirit.
Ramires battled hard to win the ball down the
right and was knocked over in the process of releasing Torres, who
showed some of his old speed in galloping down the flank before chipping
the ball in for Kalou to supply a low finish.
Di Matteo admitted that handing the Ivory Coast striker his first Champions League start was a risk that paid off.
'Kalou's come into the team after a long spell
out, he got the goal and had a great game,' the interim manager said
after Chelsea's first European away win in over a year.
'Sometimes in life, you have to take a little
risk. Torres has been terrific since I've been in charge. I've been very
happy with him, but with the others as well. They've all responded very
While Villas-Boas' selections isolated some players, di Matteo has made it a point to utilise the entire squad.
With Chelsea battling in the Premier League to
finish in the top four and an FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham
looming, the Blues could play eight matches in the next 28 days if they
qualify for the Champions League semi-finals.
Not that di Matteo is taking the second leg against Benfica for granted.
'We haven't qualified yet,' he said. 'It's a dangerous assumption to think you've qualified.'
But he will at least take comfort from the fact that he does not have to overturn a 1-3 deficit this time.
'You know we had a mountain to climb against
Napoli,' he said. 'Next week will be a mountain as well - but it will be
a little bit smaller because we had a good result here.'