Di Matteo's priority is to keep seat at top table

No one expects prolonged interest in Europe but there is still much to play for, writes Sam Wallace

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The Independent Online

When, in September 2000, Roberto Di Matteo sustained the triple fracture to his leg that would end his career, Chelsea were just establishing themselves in European football. Two years earlier they had won the European Cup Winners' Cup; they then beat Real Madrid to win the European Super Cup and in 1999 they qualified for the Champions League for the first time.

It is 11 years since the Uefa Cup game against St Gallen that finished Di Matteo's career and the club has gone through a profound transformation. But the Chelsea of whom Di Matteo finds himself in charge against Napoli tonight are fighting to save their reputation.

Yesterday at Stamford Bridge Di Matteo sat with John Terry, the club captain, at his press conference. It was Didier Drogba who was alongside Andre Villas-Boas before the 3-1 defeat in Naples. Yesterday only the captain would do.

Should England's last representatives in the Champions League bow out there will be gloom. But realistically, the challenge is not to win the tournament. The challenge is to salvage something after nine months in which a manager has been sacked and the team lie fifth, three points outside the Champions League places.

If Chelsea cannot stay in the Champions League then they must ensure that they qualify for it next season. If they cannot challenge for the title they must win the FA Cup.

The Chelsea caretaker has held a number of individual meetings with his players. He knows rebuilding has to be put to one side. If they go out of the competition in the first knockout round they will still have to beat Leicester on Sunday for a place in the FA Cup semi-finals and Manchester City in the league on Wednesday.

Chelsea must put up a fight tonight. They must win the game but if they do not win the tie it will not be as damaging as failing to qualify for next season.

It was the first leg in Naples three weeks ago where the endgame for Villas-Boas truly began. Famously leaving out Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Michael Essien, he could not call upon Terry. Terry returned for the win over Stoke on Saturday, after an absence through injury stretching back to the end of January.

It is telling that the club have kept a clean sheet in the last five games that Terry has started. He will have to be at his best to stop the golden attacking trio of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani. Lavezzi and Hamsik scored in a 6-3 win against Cagliari on Friday.

In the past, Napoli would have been seen as relatively inconsequential opponents. Chelsea, after all, have beaten Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Liverpool at home in Europe in the last eight seasons. But things have changed and Chelsea are two goals behind against one of the competition's emergent teams.

For once the expectation is that it will be too much. This year the unthinkable is not the prospect of not winning the Champions League. It is not being part of it next season.

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