Chelsea on the brink as Di Matteo's big gamble backfires
Juventus 3 Chelsea 0
It is only six months since Chelsea’s miracle of Munich, but in Turin, Roberto Di Matteo finally had to confront the inadequacies of a club whose luck has run out.
The Chelsea manager made the only decision he could be expected to make when he dropped the dismal Fernando Torres for the first time this season but sadly for Di Matteo there was no-one else to replace the great sulking centre-forward. That is the problem when a club places all its faith in a very flawed striker whose confidence has been eroded to nothing and allow the one forward who might rescue the situation to leave.
It meant that on the night that new Chelsea – the one without the departed Didier Drogba and the injured John Terry and Frank Lampard – were required to stand up and be counted, all Di Matteo was left with was a collection of callow No 10s, out of position wingers and nervy defenders. This club is, after all, the champions of Europe. It should not be like this.
Sadly for Chelsea, they were well-beaten last night, by a Juventus team that looked infinitely more confident and assured. Chelsea’s record now stands at two wins in their last eight games and should Manchester City come to Stamford Bridge and win then it would be no exaggeration to say that the season could be in danger of collapsing before the new year.
As for their chances of reaching the Champions League group stages, they hang by a thread. To go through Chelsea must hope that Shakhtar Donetsk beat Juventus on 5 December and that they beat Nordsjaelland in their final group game – a not implausible scenario. However, Shakhtar are already through regardless and a draw between the two clubs would see them and Juve both into the knockout stages.
Worst of all for Chelsea, their destiny in the competition is out of their hands. They will not need reminding that they face the prospect of being the first holders in the competition not to make it out of the group stages the following season but, all told, that might well be the least of Di Matteo’s problems.
The wonders he achieved in last season’s competition only count for so much in the volatile atmosphere of his club. He does not deserve to be concerned about his future but, come on, this is Chelsea. Given the ruthlessness with which Di Matteo’s predecessors have been disposed he would be foolish to think that his position is unaffected with Rafael Benitez a potential stopgap until Pep Guardiola becomes available.
Last night, Di Matteo took a risk by leaving out Torres but a manager must do what his instincts tell him to do. In Torres’ absence, Oscar shone at times in the second half but faded after the break. Gary Cahill and David Luiz’s partnership in defence now stands at ten games played together, 20 goals conceded.
In the meantime, the grown-ups took control of the game. By that we mean the extravagantly bearded Andrea Pirlo who passed Chelsea into submission, and the excellent Arturo Vidal who scored his side’s second goal. By the time Petr Cech committed himself too early when substitute Sebastian Giovinco ran through for the third in injury-time, Chelsea were well-beaten.
Di Matteo shuffled his side quite radically last night with the inclusion of Cesar Azpilicueta as a right-winger. On last night’s official Uefa team sheet, the Chelsea formation included a five-man defence but when they settled into their shape, it was 4-2-3-1. Eden Hazard took the role formerly occupied by Torres with Oscar in the No 10 role and Juan Mata on the left.
There were times at the start of the first half when it looked like Chelsea might cave in and they came to rely on the presence of Cech in goal in the early stages. He blocked a back post shot from Stephan Lichtsteiner with his knee in the fourth minute. Later he got down to push a shot from Claudio Marchisio wide of the near post.
Oscar’s run from left to right on nine minutes, picking his way through a crowd of Juventus defenders, turned out to be the best moment for Chelsea in the entire game. As he reached the edge of the area he unselfishly picked out Hazard in the right channel who took a touch and then hit a shot that never looked decisive enough to beat Gianluigi Buffon.
It would be pushing it to say that Chelsea were comfortable but they had come through something of a storm when finally Juventus broke through on 38 minutes. Pirlo got possession yet again after Ramires slipped. The midfielder hit a shot that Cech would have had covered were it not for the deft touch of Fabio Quagliarella to change the direction of the ball and beat the goalkeeper.
In the moments the followed Chelsea could have really lost the plot but Ashley Cole got them off the hook with a sharp clearance from the touchline. Even in the last six minutes of the half there was a chance for Mata when Oscar crossed from the right and the Chelsea man seemed to lose his nerve with Buffon bearing down on him.
To rescue the game, Chelsea needed to score but they never came close. After the hour, Vidal scored with a shot from Kwadwo Asamoah’s cross from the left side. His strike took a critical deflection off Ramires on its way in and the feeling was that Cech would have had the shot covered if it had stayed true.
Torres came on in the last 20 minutes, with Victor Moses already having replaced Azpilicueta. Chelsea did not look any better in attack and Giovinco broke free late on and scored with Cech too far off his line.
Last season, Chelsea went around Europe in the latter stages of the competition and showed no qualms about parking the bus and hanging on against opponents who would otherwise have expected to beat them. This season Di Matteo has been expected to do something different: to coax the best out of Torres and to entertain his pay-masters in Europe.
His team may yet do that in Europe, but their demanding owner might have to settle for them performing on Thursday nights in the Europa League rather than on the stage to which they are accustomed.
Man of the match Vidal.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee C Cakir (Tur).
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